January 03, 2021

2020 Football Losses

2020, which saw the worst disruptions to football since the Second World War due to the coronavirus pandemic, also saw the loss of some of its most notable figures. On November 25th, Diego Maradona passed away after a heart attack - worldwide, and particularly in Argentina, the shock and sadness at the loss of such a footballing legend were palpable. In English football, 2020 was peppered with losses from the country’s 1966 World Cup-winning team - Jack Charlton, Peter Bonetti, Norman Hunter and Nobby Stiles - and other bygone, but not forgotten eras of football - Harry Greg and Ray Clemence. France also lost one of its ex-professional players and national team manager, Michel Hidalgo. 

All of these men, and many more, achieved great things during their time as football players, coaches and managers. And, each left a legacy that has positively affected the game. Their passing was and is being mourned with tributes flowing in, not only from the world of football, their own country’s, or from their own clubs but from around the world in general. These displays of respect show the standing with which these men were held. They were not only great footballers but were also great ambassadors for the sport and the legends and heroes of many young and upcoming players.

Here we take a look at some of their achievements:

Diego Maradona will be remembered by many for the 1986 World Cup. Argentina won with Maradona's infamous 'hand of God' goal leading to them beat England in the quarter-finals. However, Maradona is also a great example of someone rising from humble origins to achieve worldwide fame. Those who followed his career more closely know him as the player who was raised in the slums, an angry man with many faults, but became arguably the best football player of all time. He was hugely talented; the ball appeared to stick to his feet as he dribbled easily passed defenders, accelerated through players and scored world-class goals – time and time again.

His awards and honours for his career at national and club level are too many to mention. But, his top achievements include winning the 1986 World Cup with Argentina, winning the Serie A, twice, with Italian club Napoli, as well as the Copa Italia, the UEFA Cup and the Supercoppa Italiana between 1986 and 1990, and securing the top three most important club wins at Barcelona (Copa del Rey, Copa de la Liga and Supercopa de España) between 1982 and 1983. He also won the Argentine Primera Division in 1981. Personally, he also collected top awards such as the Ballon D'or (1995), FIFA Player of the Century (2000), and FIFA Goal of the Century (2002), as well as making it onto the FIFA 100 Greatest Living Players (2004) list and the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) Legends (2016) list.

Jack Charlton, considered one of the greatest football players of all time, played in defence for the English football club, Leeds United and the England national team during the 1960s and '70s. He was also part of the victorious 1966 World Cup team. He was the 12th member of that original squad to pass away at age 85 and of dementia. 

Charlton was the classic centre-half with an air of invincibility, as well as resolute organisation, to his defence strategies. He is often celebrated as the key proponent of the zonal marking system adopted by his club during the '70s, and of standing alongside the opposition goalkeeper on set pieces. His career took him, on retirement from the game, into football management for English clubs Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle United, and the Republic of Ireland national team. Among his many achievements, he was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by the Queen in 1974.

Peter Bonetti, who passed away in April 2020 following a long illness, was a goalkeeper for English club Chelsea during the 1960s and ‘70s, and the England national squad, including during the 1966 World Cup. Brave and known for his lightning reflexes resulting in spectacular saves, he was nicknamed ‘the cat’ during his footballing career. He was also known for his unbelievable one-armed throw which could achieve a similar distance to a dropkick. Bonetti helped Chelsea win the Football League Cup, the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Following his retirement from playing, he coached at Chelsea and the England national team.

Norman Hunter, nicknamed ‘Bites Yer Legs’ Hunter for his formidable, rough, no-nonsense defensive style of play, died in April of 2020 after contracting COVID-19 at age 76. During his career, Hunter was a key figure when his club Leeds were a dominant force in English football - he won five cups with the team. Playing centre-half alongside Jack Charlton in the late 1960s and early 70s, the pair made an impressive and sometimes intimidating duo in defence. An accomplished player, he played a total of 726 games for Leeds and, with his admirable left foot, scored 21 goals. He was also a member of the 1966 World Cup squad and was the English league's first-ever ‘Player of the Year’ trophy (1974). He was inducted onto the Football League 100 Legends list in 1998.

Nobby Stiles, best known for his part in England's 1966 World Cup win, was a formidable little man (he was only 5ft 6in/1.7m) known for his relentless and technically brilliant marking skills. His aggressive play and tough tackling in defence and midfield led to him being known as the 'destroyer'. Stifling key players, he would win the ball and get it out to his goal-scoring teammates. The most well-known example of this talent was during the World Cup '66 when he was tasked with marking the hugely talented Eusébio; under Stiles' attention, the Portuguese player enjoyed very little time with the ball to the great benefit of the England team. Stiles was no less talented in his endeavours for his home team Manchester United, helping the club win the European Cup final in 1968, the first English team to do so.

Following his career on the pitch, Stiles continued on the sidelines as a team manager (Preston, Vancouver Whitecaps, West Bromwich) and coach (Manchester United). He was inducted into the Football League 100 Legends (1998) and the English Football Hall of Fame (2007) and was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2000. Stiles died in October 2020 at age 78 following a battle with dementia.

Harry Gregg, goalkeeper for Manchester United and the Northern Ireland national team, and football club manager, died in February of 2020 aged 87. Gregg is widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers ever and was, in 1957, the world’s most expensive goalkeeper having been transferred from English club Doncaster to Manchester United for a record fee of £23,000. 

Tall and powerfully built, Gregg dominated the goal and was a revered shot-stopper. He was also known for his presence in the box, boldly coming out of goal for high crosses. Blighted by injury, Gregg had a stellar career none-the-less. He helped the United squad reach the 1958 FA Cup final, and, with his ability to produce magnificent saves under pressure and despite injury, he helped take Northern Ireland to the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup - for which he was named ‘best goalkeeper of the tournament’. For his services to football, including his charitable work, he was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1995 and an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2019.

Ray Clemence, known as one of the world's finest goalkeepers of the 70's/80's era, was, with his lightning-quick reactions, unflappable composure and consistent shot-stopping skills, a reassuring presence for his team. It was these qualities that made him one of the foundation stones for the Liverpool and England teams of that time. With Liverpool, he won the FA Cup, the League Cup, the European Cup (three times), the UEFA Cup (twice) and the European Super Cup. And, after a move to Tottenham Hotspurs, he won the FA Cup and The UEFA Cup.

Clemence was with Liverpool for 14 years; he won 61 caps for England and made over 1000 appearances during his long career. And when he finished playing, he passed on his skills and experience to others as a manager (Tottenham Hotspur and Barnet) and then the England goalkeeping coach. He was appointed a member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1987.

Michel Hidalgo, who passed away in March 2020 aged 87, retired as a French professional football player, having won two league titles and two national cup titles with Monaco, and took over as coach of the French national team in 1975. He took the team from zero to fourth place in the 1982 World Cup and then on to win the Euro 1984 competition. As the ultimate tactician, he is credited with restoring pride in the national team with the electrifying attacking style of football he implemented, and the four-man midfield set up, known as the magic square, that dominated the national side during the 80s. During his managerial career, he was presented with the French Manager of the Year award (1982), the European Coach of the Year award (1984), and, the World Soccer Magazine World Manager of the Year (1984).

Of course, not all the players we have lost have been internationally famous. Players like Vidin Apostolov, Bulgarian defender, who made over 440 appearances at senior club level and 22 for Bulgaria, including at the 1966 World Cup. Krasnodar Rora, a Croatian footballer who played for Yugoslavia, and teams in Belgium and France before taking his skills into management back home. And Carlos Héctor Campos Silva, successful striker for Chilean club, Universidad de Chile, who played for his country 39 times. These players, well known in their own countries, achieved much to set an example to their countrymen.

Some players to leave us in 2020 left much too soon in their careers. Malawi-born and incredibly talented footballer Jeremy Wisten was just 17 when he died, a year after an injury reportedly led to him leaving Manchester City's elite youth squads. Luka Lucić, Croatian Nation U17 Team midfielder, was only 16 when he died following a train accident. Promising young Swedish National U17’s star, Paul Eichoue, was 18 when his car was involved in a fatal accident. Highly-rated Atletico youth team striker, Christain Minchola was just 14 years old when he lost his life. Nathaël Julan, a French professional striker who, in the last match of his life, scored both goals in his team’s winning game, died in a car accident. He was just 23. As the world fought coronavirus, Bolivian player Deibert Guzman became the first professional football player to die from COVID-19, he was only 25. Who knows what they would have brought to the game!

Like all successful enterprises, whether in sport, business, education, manufacturing and even government, they are only as good as the people that are in them. A fact that is certainly true of football. The game has had, and currently has, a rich pool of talented owners, managers, coaches and players. Each of these people brings something to the game, something to motivate and inspire no matter how long or how short their time on earth.

Main image: Marco Lacobucci Epp/Shutterstock

Read more about football superstar Maradona’s life on and off the pitch in our Maradona - The Lost Legend article.

Published: January 03, 2021
Last updated: January 03, 2021
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