The death of football legend Johan Cruyff earlier this week has shocked the world, and seen many tributes paid to one of the game’s great players. At the age of 68, he should have had another 15-20 years of life ahead of him. Over the years, there have been several players whose passing has sent many into mourning. The list below is a tribute to what is essentially a full squad of footballers taken too early, well before their time.
After a career that had taken him to clubs such as Barcelona and Benfica, the German international goalkeeper had been settled at Hannover 96 for more than five years at the time of his death in 2009. After reportedly battling depression for many years, Enke committed suicide by jumping in front of a train at a level crossing. He was 32 years old.
The centre-back’s £8.1 million transfer from Southampton to Tottenham in 2001 was the subject of much controversy. Unfortunately, Richards was forced to retire in 2005 aged 31 after complaining of dizzy spells and severe headaches, the cause of which was suspected to be an inner ear infection. He followed the medical advice that playing on would lead to brain haemorrhage, but his health deteriorated over the next few years. In February 2011, his death at the age of 36, was announced following a long illness.
The Colombian defender captained his country at the 1994 World Cup, and was in such fine form that European Champions, AC Milan, were reportedly in talks to make him the long-term successor to Franco Baresi. During Colombia’s second group game against host nation USA, Escobar scored an own goal when attempting to clear a cross into the box. His side lost the game 2-1 and were eliminated from the tournament. Less than a fortnight later, the 27-year-old was shot six times in a car park and later died in hospital.
The following year, Humberto Castro Muñoz was sentenced to 43 years for Escobar’s murder. He was known for various Cartel connections, and it was rumoured that his boss had lost a lot of money gambling on the World Cup. Muñoz was released on good behaviour, after serving approximately 11 years.
A national hero after captaining England to their only World Cup triumph in 1966. His statue guards the entrance to Wembley in a fitting tribute. At the time of his international retirement in 1973, the 108 caps he won for his country was a national record. In February 1993, aged 51, Moore announced that he had bowel and liver cancer, and was dead within two weeks.
The young Italian left-back, who had recently won his first cap for his country, seemed to have the world at his feet. He was tipped for big things within the game, and was first choice in his position in a Juventus side that would dominate Italian football over the next five years. Prior to the 1994 World Cup, Fortunato was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukaemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant. Amazingly, he recovered from the operation to once again pull on the Juventus shirt in February 1995, but his joy was to be short-lived. Two months later, with his immune system still vulnerable, he developed Pneumonia and died aged just 23. Juventus’ 1994/95 Serie A triumph (ironically, their 23rd league title) is now known as Fortunato’s Scudetto.
A defender who is regarded a legend on Merseyside after representing both Liverpool and Everton during a distinguished and successful career. After hanging up his boots in 2001, Ablett took up coaching, and even had a spell as manager of Stockport County. In 2012, having recently been on the coaching staff at Ipswich Town, 46-year-old Ablett died of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, an aggressive type of cancer, having battled the illness for almost 18 months. His funeral was heavily attended by representatives of both Merseyside clubs, including their managers, Kenny Dalglish and David Moyes.
It’s a measure of how good Best was that, even though his career at the top level was finished by the age of 27, when he was sacked by Manchester United, he is widely recognised as the greatest player ever to emerge from the British Isles. A self-confessed alcoholic, he had already undergone a liver transplant before being admitted to hospital for the final time in 2005. Having continued to drink following his operation, he died aged 59 of a lung infection and multiple organ failure.
A winger who lit up English football during his time at West Bromwich Albion and, in 1979, became the first English player to join Real Madrid. Although he was initially a success at the Bernabéu, injuries and loss of form eventually saw him leave Madrid and become something of a journeyman, representing Marseille, Leicester City and Wimbledon during his latter career. In 1989, while playing in the Spanish Second Division for Rayo Vallecano, Cunningham was killed in a car crash in Madrid. He was only 33 years old.
Ball was a lynchpin of the England midfield during their 1966 World Cup victory, despite being just 21 at the time, and a legend at Everton, with whom he won the league title in 1970. He later went on to manage several clubs, most notably Southampton and Manchester City. After leaving Portsmouth in 1999, Ball retired from the game. He died in 2007 from a heart attack at the age of 61.
Known as “Rocky” to those who knew him, Rocastle is regarded a legend at Arsenal, with whom he won two league titles. A fantastic dribbler and a powerhouse midfielder, injuries played their part in slowing down his career. He later represented Leeds United, Manchester City and Chelsea, and had a spell with Malaysian side Sabah before retiring in 1999. He underwent chemotherapy in 2001 for the same illness that would later claim the left of Gary Ablett: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Despite hopes that he would make a full recovery, he died shortly afterwards, aged just 33.
A legend of the game that is revered as one of the greatest ever players, he even has a trick named after him, the Cruyff turn. After enthralling fans with his skills, and playing in the “Total Football” sides of Ajax and Holland during the 1970s, he later transferred to Barcelona, where lived for the most part since. A heavy smoker for the majority of his life up until 1991, when he had open heart surgery, he gave up the habit but was diagnosed in 2015 with Lung Cancer. Earlier this week, Cruyff died at the age of 68.
A combative midfielder who was the captain and heartbeat of Don Revie’s Leeds United team during their title winning sides of 1969 and 1974. He would later manage the Elland Road side during the late 1980s, and in 2006 was voted the club’s greatest player of all time. In 1997, Bremner died of a heart attack just two days before his 55th birthday. Two years later, a statue of him was erected outside Elland Road.
At the age of 28, Foé was already a veteran of the Cameroon midfield having amassed more than 60 caps and, in 2003, he took to the field for the Confederations Cup semi-final against Colombia. In the 72nd minute, he collapsed in the middle of the pitch, with no other player anywhere near him. His heart had stopped, and despite several resuscitation attempts, the medics were unable to revive him. It took two autopsies for the cause of death to be revealed: a hereditary condition called Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy. At the time of his death, Foé was on loan to Manchester City from Lyon, and their manager Kevin Keegan decided to retire his number 23 shirt, and no player at the club has worn it since.
A legend at Rangers, Motherwell and Clydebank, Cooper was one of Scotland’s greatest ever players, despite only winning 22 caps for his country. Ruud Gullit was so impressed after playing against him in a friendly that he called him one of the best players he had ever seen. In March 1995, the winger was winding down his career at Clydebank, the club where he began his career. He was participating in a coaching film for Scottish television, when he suffered a brain haemorrhage on set. He died the next day, at the age of 39. Motherwell have since named the North Stand at Fir Park after him.
A 22-year-old left midfielder who played for Sevilla, had recently won his first cap for Spain, and had reportedly attracted the interest of Manchester United and Arsenal. In August 2007, Puerta collapsed on the pitch following a cardiac arrest. He recovered enough to walk to the dressing room, but then collapsed again, and was taken to a local hospital. It emerged that Puerta had a hereditary heart condition called Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia, but it is unclear whether the player was aware of it. As a result, Puerta had suffered irreversible brain damage and multiple organ failure, and died three days after he was admitted. Following his untimely death, Sevilla retired his number 16 shirt, with the provision that if Puerta’s son ever plays for the club, he will inherit that number.