Tuesday 29 December 2020, 08:00

Departed stars mourned by football world

  • Several major football figures passed away in 2020

  • Among them were four World Cup winners, including icons Maradona and Rossi

  • The sport also lost a number of renowned coaches

Former players responsible for some of the most memorable moments of the FIFA World Cup™, as well as coaching giants who made a notable impact on the beautiful game, were among the influential members of the football community who passed on in 2020.

FIFA.com has put together a non-exhaustive list of these dearly missed footballers and coaches who left a tangible legacy, and whose deaths during this particularly tragic year have created a sense of emptiness in fans worldwide.

‘Genius’, ‘myth’, ‘monument’, ‘legend’, even ‘god’ for some: these are just a few of the reverential terms that have been used to describe the great Diego Maradona, who died on 25 November at the age of 60. It would be impossible to list all of the Argentinian’s feats here, or the countless tributes paid to him. FIFA.com decided, therefore, to devote an entire section to him, compiling the achievements of one of the greatest players of all time, and the marks of respect offered after his death.

A few days later, on 9 December, fans found themselves mourning another celebrated footballer, Paolo Rossi. Four years prior to Mexico 1986, where Maradona’s talent stole the show, the Italian had had a similar impact on Spain 1982, propelling his country to victory and collecting the adidas Golden Ball award for his excellent performances. Once again, as befits this Italian and World Cup legend, FIFA.com created a special page dedicated to Pablito, his career and the accolades he received.

The year was also marked by the passing of two English world champions, defender Jack Charlton and midfielder Nobby Stiles, who both claimed football’s biggest prize on home soil in the summer of 1966. Charlton, the older brother of England luminary Bobby, earned 35 caps for the Three Lions, and spent his entire 21-year club career – between 1952 and 1973 – in the colours of Leeds United. As a coach, he steered the Republic of Ireland to their first-ever UEFA European Championship in 1988, and their first and second World Cups in 1990 and 1994.

Stiles, meanwhile, spent the majority of his playing days representing Manchester United, and was first called up to the England national squad the year before the 1966 World Cup. The determined holding midfielder played every minute of the tournament, distinguishing himself in the semi-final versus Portugal, during which he succeeded in nullifying the threat posed by Eusebio, the competition’s leading goalscorer.

While 1966 is regarded as England’s footballing zenith, it had always constituted something of a bitter memory for losing finalists West Germany and their goalkeeper Hans Tilkowski, who was better placed than anyone on the pitch to see Geoff Hurst’s infamous shot crash off the underside of the bar and become perhaps the most controversial goal in the history of the tournament. The Nationalelf custodian died on 5 January, doubtless taking with him the conviction that the ball had not crossed the line. The following day, Hurst paid tribute to the German ’keeper, who had, over the years, become a good friend of his.

Another owner of a World Cup runners-up medal (or, in his case, two medals), Rob Rensenbrink, one of the greatest players in the history of Dutch football, passed on this year. The gifted winger came within a few centimetres of lifting the illustrious trophy: with the score tied at 1-1 in the dying seconds of the Final of Argentina 1978, four years after the Netherlands had lost to West Germany in the showpiece match of the 1974 tournament, he could only watch on in disbelief as his opportunistic effort rebounded back off Ubaldo Filliol’s left-hand post. In extra time, La Albiceleste would go on to win the game 3-1. “I’ll think about it till the day I die,” he once said. On 24 January 2020, that day finally came.

While the Oranje were raising eyebrows at the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, England’s players were forced to follow the action on television, having failed to qualify despite being able to call on Ray Clemence, who was Liverpool’s last line of defence during their all-conquering European campaigns. With the Reds, the reliable goalkeeper held aloft the UEFA Cup (in 1973 and 1976) and the European Cup (in 1977, 1978 and 1981), but he did not get to experience the excitement of a World Cup until 1982. After hanging up his gloves, the former Tottenham Hotspur shot-stopper occupied the post of England goalkeeping coach from 1996 to 2012. After a courageous 15-year battle with prostate cancer, he finally succumbed to the disease in November.

Football, 1978 World Cup Final, 25th June 1978, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Argentina 3 v Holland 1, (aet), Holland's Rob Rensenbrink takes on the Argentina defence

Iraq also have just one World Cup participation to their name, at Mexico 1986. The Iraqis may have lost all three of their group matches, to Belgium, Mexico and Paraguay, but they created a little bit of history against Les Diables Rouges when Ahmed Radhi fired home to halve the margin in an eventual 2-1 defeat. Scorer of the only goal the Lions of Mesopotamia have ever recorded at the global tournament and a national-team stalwart, the former striker, who netted 62 times in 121 international appearances, died in June after contracting Covid-19.

Another player who attained national-hero status after scoring his country’s first World Cup goal was Papa Bouba Diop. The Senegalese midfielder entered the annals of footballing history by sliding in to grab the winner for Les Lions de la Téranga in a 1-0 victory over reigning world champions France at Korea/Japan 2002. Sadly, Diop lost his fight with motor neurone disease on 29 November. He was 42.

Part of the French backroom staff in 2002, Bruno Martini was responsible for training the squad’s goalkeepers. The ex-international ’keeper, who earned 31 caps for France, passed away on 20 October at the age of 58, after being hospitalised for a heart attack several days earlier.

It was a sad year all-round for supporters of Les Bleus, who also lost two former coaches. One of them, Michel Hidalgo, died on 26 March, four days after his 87th birthday. After taking up the reins of the national team in 1976, he gradually transformed a group of players struggling for consistency into a formidable attacking force, guiding them to the 1978 World Cup, their first appearance on football’s greatest stage in 12 years. Four years later, Hidalgo led France to the semi-finals of Spain 1982, where his charges endured a painful defeat on penalties at the hands of West Germany.

Gerard Houllier also experienced crushing disappointment at the helm of the French national side: his team were dramatically eliminated from the race to USA 1994 in the last minute of their final qualifying match against Bulgaria. But fans of Paris Saint-Germain, Liverpool and Lyon, with whom he secured several major trophies, will likely retain nothing but positive memories of the erudite Frenchman, who died in mid-December after a heart operation.

Heart problems were also the cause of Alejandro Sabella’s death on 8 December at the age of 66. Coach of Argentina between 2011 and 2014, he oversaw La Albiceleste’s run to the World Cup Final in 2014, which his players lost 1-0 to Germany in extra time. Five years before, Sabella had lost another global final in extra time, at the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup, where Estudiantes – whom he had steered to Copa Libertadores glory earlier that year – slipped to a 2-1 defeat versus Barcelona.

Serbian Ilija Petkovic was part of the Yugoslavia side that competed at the 1974 World Cup in West Germany. He subsequently tried his hand at coaching, and succeeded in guiding Serbia and Montenegro to Germany 2006. In June 2020, he became one of the many victims of the Covid-19 pandemic.