Spitting in football: Famous incidents where players have been caught

Frank Rijkaard Rudi Voller Netherlands West Germany 1990 World Cup
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are among the stars who have been caught spitting at opponents in what is one of football's most taboo acts

Spitting at an opponent is regarded as one of the most taboo actions in football.

While players can on occasion lose their cool and swing a fist or an elbow at an opponent, this is not regarded with the same disdain the act of spitting on a fellow professional is.

Seen as a show of gross disrespect, it is considered one of the lowest actions possible on the park.

Nevertheless, over the years there have been numerous high-profile incidents in which players have been caught aiming their phlegm at others, with the increased television coverage over the years making it more and more difficult for players to escape scrutiny for such moments.

Undoubtedly the most famous spitting incident in football came during a World Cup match between Germany and the Netherlands at Italia 90. Fixtures between the nations were always charged affairs, yet this knockout match was particularly fractious, and particularly so after Frank Rijkaard initially aimed his spit at Rudi Voller after a crunching tackle.

However, It wasn't until later in the match that the pair were dismissed for a subsequent incident which ensured Rijkaard fell even further into football infamy, as he again aimed spit at his opponent, which nestled in the Germany’s neatly coiffured mullet. 

Arguably the game’s most prolific spitter, however, was ex-Liverpool forward El Hadji Diouf. While numerous allegations were made towards the Senegal international that were unproven, he was caught spitting at a Celtic fan during a 2003 UEFA Cup quarter-final, which the Scottish team won over two legs. A year later, he was caught for repeating the incident towards Portsmouth’s Arjan de Zeeuw.

El Hadji Diouf Liverpool

Diouf defended himself by claiming that spitting was not thought of as being so reprehensible in his homeland.

Another player to come up with a poor excuse for their actions was France’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, who contrived to pick up a three-month ban in a friendly match while playing for Marseille against WAC Casablanca.

The former Manchester United keeper spat at a referee during the match and said: “I regret what happened but I’m not guilty because I didn’t spit at his face.”

One of Barthez’s former international team-mates, Patrick Vieira, found himself in hot water for spitting five years earlier. Playing for Arsenal in a derby clash against West Ham, he reacted to a red card by spitting at Neil Ruddock, an action that earned him a six-match ban and a £30,000 fine.

Even the game’s greatest players, though, have been caught spitting at opponents in their younger days.

Five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo lost his cool while playing for Manchester United. The Portuguese clashed regularly with Derby’s Robbie Savage in a 2009 FA Cup tie that United won 4-1. That did not stop Ronaldo, who scored one and had another disallowed, apparently aiming spit at the Welshman after being left grounded for the umpteenth time.

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But Lionel Messi, Ronaldo’s equal in terms of Ballon d’Or successes, has also been guilty of such an offence. Back in 2008, he was spotted aiming spit at the back of the jersey of Malaga winger Duda, having spent much of the evening being kicked by his direct opponent.

The last high-profile Premier League incident arrived in 2014, when Papiss Cisse of Newcastle and Manchester United’s Jonny Evans each accused the other of spitting during a clash at St James’ Park. Video evidence seemed to confirm the guilt of both.

Since then, there have been no major incidents in England.