Thursday, December 31, 2020

Football's Fallen of 2020

THE BEAUTIFUL GAME LOST SOME BIG NAMES THIS YEAR

It was the year of Covid-19 and the world's greatest sport was not immune.

Amid all the madness of a pandemic which saw the European Championship, the Copa America, the African Cup of Nations, the AFC Cup and the Club World Cup, as well as several domestic league and cup competitions, wiped from the diary, football also lost some of its heroes.

Top of the list in 2020's In Memoriam section of course is Diego Armando Maradona. The little Argentine pibe from the Villa Fiorito barrio was not only head and shoulders above his contemporaries but probably the most skilled player of all time. His death leaves a most massive mark.

Maradona
Maradona

El Pibe's rags to riches life story, his dark excesses matched with a swashbuckling capture of the ultimate prize and conversion into a demi-god in Naples makes him wholly worthy of those overused terms legend and messiah. Songs and statues, films, and folklore have commemorated his years. In centuries past he would have been canonised. On the field and beyond he certainly transcended the surly bonds of earth to touch the hand of God (apologies to the poet John Gillespie Magee).

January 2020 had started with the news that Hans Tillkowski, best-known as the West German goalkeeper in the 1966 World Cup, had passed away. Although he never accepted Geoff Hurst's crossbar-hitting third strike, he saw the funny side enough in 2009 to unveil a statue in Azerbaijan of Tofiq Bahramov, the 'Russian linesman' who confirmed the goal. 

Before the 1962 finals he smashed up his hotel room a la Paul Gascoigne upon discovering he would be dropped as first-choice custodian. Tillkowski won 39 German caps, played for Westfalia Herne, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt and later managed Nurnberg and Werder Bremen.

The same month Dutch legend Rob Rensenbrink died aged 72. He played mostly in Belgium, most notably for Anderlecht between 1971 and 1980 where he twice won the league championship and European Cup Winners' Cup but also for the Netherlands' magical total football side of 1974. Substituted at half-time in the '74 final, the attacking midfielder would go on to net five at the 1978 World Cup, profiting from the absence of Johann Cruyff. In the final, Rensenbrink struck the Argentine post in the last minute of normal time. Had he found the net he would surely have been Holland's hero forever.

 

In February, Harry Gregg, a survivor of the infamous Munich air crash where his selfless heroism in the aftermath of the event saved a number of lives, died in his native Northern Ireland aged 87. Voted the best goalkeeper of the 1958 World Cup, Gregg made 210 appearances for Manchester United and managed four clubs between 1968 and 1987.

March saw French legend Michel Hidalgo pass away. A successful player and later manager with Monaco, Hidalgo will forever be remembered for guiding France to their first trophy, Euro '84 with the flamboyant 'three musketeers' midfield of Alain Giresse, Michel Platini and Jean Tigana.

In April, goalkeeper Peter Bonetti died aged 78. The son of Swiss immigrants, 'the cat' played an amazing 600 times for Chelsea and seven times for England. In the heat of Mexico '70, Bonetti replaced the suspiciously-poisoned Gordon Banks for his country's ill-fated quarter-final versus West Germany.

Another former England man Norman Hunter also died in April aged 76, this time a victim of Covid-19. With Jack Charlton, 'Bite Yer Legs' Hunter formed a rock hard centre back pairing in Don Revie's 'Damned United' and was the PFA player of the year in 1974. Like Bonetti, he was a non-playing member of the England '66 squad and played briefly at Mexico '70. Leeds have renamed an Elland Road stand after him.

Michael Robinson
Michael Robinson

Later that month Michael Robinson died aged only 61. Despite 24 caps for Eire, a dozen years in England and a hat-trick of trophies for Liverpool in 1984, Robinson came into his own after retiring in Spain where he ended up becoming the nation's premier TV football presenter. Footballers can rise to the top on the field in another country but no-one has managed to do it in football journalism like Robinson did.

Also in Spain in April another successful immigrant, Raddy Antic, died aged 71. A defender for clubs in his native Serbia, Spain and Turkey, he is idolised by fans of Luton Town for scoring a last-gasp goal to keep them up in 1983, prompting a famous on-field invasion by manager David Pleat. He later coached his country at the 2010 World Cup and remains the only man to have managed Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

 

July saw the death at 85 of Jack Charlton, as beloved in England for being part of the 1966 World Cup winning side as he was in Ireland, where he took the Republic to their first European Championship and World Cup finals. Big Jack & Saint Jack, his bluff, no-nonsense style of play and management won him fans on both sides of the Irish Sea so much so that when Eire beat England at Euro '88, English fans still wanted him and his team to advance. Underrated tactically, he was actually ahead of his time in using gegenpressing so successfully with Eire. He was also a one-club man, playing 629 times for Leeds United.

October saw the death at 78 of Nobby Stiles, best-known for his merry dance on the Wembley turf after  the 1966 World Cup. Employed as a midfield disruptor, his nullifying of the great Eusebio in the semi-final was key to England's success that year. He made 311 appearances for Manchester United, with whom he won the European Cup in 1968. His death left only four members of England's '66 eleven living.

In November Ray Clemence left us aged 72. Liverpool's goalkeeper in their golden age had a trophy cabinet stacked with silverware - five league championships, three European Cups, two UEFA Cups, an FA Cup, a League Cup and a Super Cup with the Reds. He then went on to win the FA Cup and UEFA Cup with Tottenham. He would have won far more than 61 caps with England had Peter Shilton not been his contemporary. Off-field, Clemence was universally praised as a most kind and decent colleague.

The same month, Senegal star Papa Bouba Diop died of motor neurone disease aged only 42. Nicknamed the wardrobe for his almost 2 metre height and muscular physique, Diop played for four English sides as well as in France, Greece and Switzerland and is best known for scoring the winner for Senegal at the 2002 World Cup which beat holders France in their opening match.

Maradona's death overshadowed all others, but news of another World Cup great passing in early December came as a hammer blow. Paolo Rossi, Italian hero of Espana '82, died aged 64. That summer in Spain belonged to him, winning the World Cup, Golden Ball and Golden Boot in one go. Rossi was the world's costliest player when he signed for Juventus in 1976 but was banned from football in 1980 as part of the Totonero betting scandal, only returning to action just before the World Cup, where he arrived less than fully fit. After three sluggish group games, Rossi then exploded. His hat-trick against Brazil in one of the tournament's greatest ever games will live long in the memory. Like Toto Schillaci in Italia '90, his Azzurro star burned short and bright.

 

Then eleven days before Christmas, another former coach of Les Bleus, Gerard Houllier died aged 73. Enthused by a gap year in Liverpool in 1970, the Frenchman returned as manager of the Reds in 1998 and won them their first European trophy in years, the 2001 UEFA Cup. That year Liverpool also won the FA Cup, League Cup, Charity Shield, and Super Cup, confirming his Wenger-esque overhaul of the club's practices. He nurtured the talents of Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry, and Michael Owen, won the Ligue 1 title with Lyon and PSG yet failed to make it to USA '94 with France in calamitous fashion, losing their last two home games in the last minute when only needing a point. Houllier famously blamed David Ginola for crossing instead of holding onto the ball.

It has been a sad year for everyone and as we can see, football has had its fair share of tears too. The brightest stars will shine the longest and we should look to them for inspiration. 

Let us salute our fallen heroes therefore and hope for a return to footballing normality and a happier 2021 across the world.

We are a global family after all.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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