However, sometimes things went terribly wrong. Former soccer icons ended up in poverty or misery. Some became alcoholics or committed suicide. Others died far too early in tragic accidents, had psychological problems or became seriously ill.
We tell 12 of the most tragic stories in recent football history. Soccer heroes who suffered horrible misfortunes after their careers had ended. They come from different countries and different eras in football. From the beginnings of professional football, the golden age of football enthusiasm from 1945 to 1970, and the globalised football scene of the last 50 years.
They include all kinds of footballers. Brilliant strikers, graceful midfielders, goalkeepers with that special something and uncompromising defenders who simply weren’t able to manage their lives. Maybe they were missing the glory on the pitch, the fact that they were no longer in the public eye, the admiration of the fans. Or maybe they just hadn’t learned how to cope with life outside of the arena. Fate was not kind to these soccer icons.
Sócrates Brasileiro Sampaio de Souza Vieira de Oliveira (known as Dr Sócrates; * 19 February 1954 in Belém; † 4 December 2011 in São Paulo) was a Brazilian football player and paediatrician. Socrates is the epitome of the tragic hero. In August 2011, Sócrates was hospitalized with gastric bleeding and an inflamed liver and spent several days in intensive care. It was in this context that he revealed his drinking problems. On 4 December 2011, at the age of 57, he died in São Paulo of sepsis caused by an intestinal infection.
Socrates made his debut in the Seleção on 17 May 1979 against Paraguay and went on to play in 60 games for the national football team of Brazil. The midfielder scored 22 goals. Sócrates was Brazil’s captain at the 1982 Football World Cup in Spain and 1986 in Mexico. The man with the longest name among all officially registered World Cup participants was the driving force behind Brazil’s offense in the 1980s. Together with Zico, Falcão and Toninho Cerezo, Sócrates formed Brazil’s “magical midfield quartet”, also known as the “Fantastic Four”.
Despite being the heavy favourites multiple times, especially during the 1982 World Cup in Spain, this team never managed to win the title of world champions. In Brazil, however, they are still widely considered to be one of the best Seleção of all time, together with Pelé’s 1970 World Cup squad.
The elimination from the 1986 World Cup was particularly unfortunate, as the team suffered a disastrous defeat just before the semi-finals. Sócrates, who always shot penalties from a standing position, missed. Platini and Júlio César also missed, and France won the penalty shootout 4-3. After the World Cup, Sócrates retired from the national team.
Falcão and Zico also retired, which marked the end of one of the most significant eras of the Brazilian national team. However, ultimately, it was also one of the least successful. The title of World Cup winners always eluded them.
Socrates later revealed that he smoked 20 cigarettes a day, trained little, but celebrated all the more. At Corinthians São Paulo, he enforced grass-roots democratic structures (the so-called Democracia Corinthiana), allowing the players to decide everything. From the training times to the diet plan. Sócrates, who was 192 cm tall but only had a shoe size of 41 and was famous for his heel kicks and steep passes with his heel, was considered the enfant terrible of Brazilian football.
He urged the fans to stand up against the military dictatorship at the time and to support democracy. Among his supporters in football and politics were communist and left-wing defender Vladimir and young Walter Casagrande. During the two national championships in 1982 and 1983, Casagrande and the Democracia Corintiana repeatedly used the football pitch to demonstrate their political attitude, for example by wearing jerseys with the slogan “Democracy Now”.
Sócrates was a medical student, which is why he was also called Dr Sócrates. Because he completed his studies while already playing professional football, he missed out on the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. In 1983, he gave the following reply after being asked how he wanted to die: “I want to die on a Sunday and for Corinthians to become champion”. Sócrates did die on a Sunday. And a few hours later, Corinthians won the championship.
One of the reasons: Gascoigne never managed to get rid of the role of class prankster. Despite being a gifted footballer, he was the notorious clown in every team cabin. And even today, people chuckle over classic stories about the ex-professional, whose life is marked by alcohol and drug addiction.
For instance when he tells the story of how he switched the football boots of every player on his team. Or how he drove a bus full of tourists around Piccadilly Circus. That’s what the people of England love him for. Boozing is still socially acceptable in the country.
The sad truth, however, is that shortly after his career, Gascoigne’s story was already far from a laughing matter. After a wild public appearance of the former star, Gascoigne’s manager told the BBC that his client was in grave mortal danger. “He urgently needs help”
2015 marked a low point in the life of the man who was once England’s greatest footballer, the hope of a sporting nation. How could it have come to this?
Indeed, the young Paul Gascoigne had everything you need for a good sports story. He came from a poor background, learned how to play with a tennis ball because his parents couldn’t afford a football. And he was soon discovered as a great talent and was signed by Tottenham Hotspur.
In 1988, he was voted “Young Footballer of the Year”. But the real breakthrough for Gazza came at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, where he played outstanding football and led England to the semi-finals. The scene in which Gascoigne received his second yellow card in the match against Germany – and cried uncontrollably into his jersey because he would have been banned for a possible final – is unforgotten. However, it didn’t come to that: The penalty shoot-out against Germany was the final stop, England was eliminated. Perhaps “Gazza” was never better than during this World Cup – a strong dribbler and fighter, a driving force with unorthodox ideas.
And yet, the Englishman’s self-destructive side already existed back then. In his autobiography, he later described how he couldn’t sleep the night before the Germany game. He had wandered restlessly through the hotel and eventually took part in a tennis match against two Americans on the hotel’s court. On the night before the most important match of his career.
Later on, Gascoigne increasingly turned to alcohol and medication to combat his insomnia. Constant injuries and a lack of discipline impeded his career. During breaks from football, he discovered alcohol as a remedy for loneliness and boredom.
In 1992, Gascoigne joined Lazio Rome, and, after a few disappointing years in Italy, he was transferred to the Glasgow Rangers. Things worked out better for him there, but again and again his private escapades caused him to make the headlines.
14 weeks after their wedding, he beat his wife Sheryl so badly that she had to be hospitalised. After the costly divorce and various drunken excesses, “Gazza” was admitted into a rehab clinic in 1998.
“If things continue this way, Gascoigne won’t even make 40”, is how German football magazine “Kicker” described it back then.
In England, binge drinking and boozing are still a significant part of life, not just among the working class, but also among the middle and upper classes.
“Drunk as a lord” is still a typical expression today, in the same way that the old customs of binge drinking or drinking competitions are still important among the working class. Gascoigne’s achievements during the later stages of his career are all the more astounding. In 2002, when he was under contract with Everton, he fuelled up – as he later described the incident in an interview – with three and a half bottles of wine, two triple brandies and 13 sleeping pills the night before the match against Sunderland.
Gascoigne played, drove home and fell asleep. After waking up the next morning, he later said he had remembered nothing. Next to his bed was an empty bottle of champagne. He had been voted “Man of the Match”. However, such glimmers of hope could not hide the fact that his athletic career was already on a steep descent. In the end, he was moving from club to club, trying to find success with contracts in England’s second league, in China and Portugal, and finally, in 2005, as manager of Kettering Town, a club in England’s sixth league.
He was fired after just 39 days – Gascoigne had been “drunk before, during and after the first team’s matches,” according to the club leadership. Meanwhile, his list of alcohol and drug escapades became more and more impressive.
In 2008, he was placed in a psychiatric ward three times, once after showing up drunk and confused in a London hairdressing salon. The fallen star spent half a year in a rehab facility and then moved to an apartment by the sea in Bournemouth.
At first, it seemed like he had got his life under control just in time. However, this was followed by a shocking appearance at the charity gala in Northampton. Something, it seemed, had once again thrown Gascoigne off track. His next stint in rehab followed. Radio presenter Chris Evans, cricket player Ronnie Irani, ex-football star Gary Lineker and TV presenter Piers Morgan put him on a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, according to the Sun. Because Gascoigne was broke, it is said that they also covered the costs of the rehab clinic there.
Naturally, the tabloids kept track of him in the US as well. Immediately after arriving in Phoenix, a picture of Gascoigne was published in the Sun. It showed Gascoigne sitting in an airport bar. He had ordered a large glass of beer.
Gerd Müller is suffering from Alzheimer’s. The “Bomber of the Nation” – or fat little Müller, as his first coach in professional football, Tschick Cajkovski, called him in the 60s.
From a physical point of view, Gerd Müller certainly wasn’t the most impressive football player – not even in his heyday. However, for a time, he was the best striker in the world. Gerd Müller scored 398 goals in 453 league games. And he scored 68 international goals for Germany in 62 international matches. That is an average of more than one goal per international match.
At the time of his retirement, he was top scorer at the World Cup with 14 goals. What made him special was his ability to move in the tightest of spaces, leave opponents in the dust and score goals from the most impossible of situations. Nobody in the world could do that as well as him. He is still a role model for a whole group of centre-forwards who don’t stand out for their size or physical presence, but rather for their agility, reflexes and capacity to anticipate situations.
As well as Gerd Müller navigated the pitch, he never did find his way in life after his footballing career had ended. At the end of the 70s, he moved to Florida in the US. This is where Müller’s problems with alcohol started.
The tragic thing about Gerd Müller’s career is that the “Bomber of the Nation”, who emigrated to Florida in 1979 in anger over a substitution, never found his place in life after playing his last game for the Orlando Smith Brothers in Fort Lauderdale.
At least no place that truly made him happy. After three years in the US, he returned to Munich, 8 years after he had led Germany to the World Cup title. From a personal and financial perspective, his life was completely empty.
The public first found out about Müller’s problems in September 1991. Because he showed up drunk out of his mind at a training session of Bayern Munich, because his wife wanted to divorce him, and because the German tax authorities seized two of his apartments.
He didn’t have what it takes to be an authoritarian manager, a clever executive or an eloquent TV expert, as everyone who knew the trained weaver was well aware of. “You’re not a man of many words. You scored the goals without talking much.” This is how Franz Beckenbauer characterized Gerd Müller during his laudation speech in 2003, when Müller was named the most valuable Bundesliga player of all time.
“I was in a lot of pain, and without the help of my friends, I probably wouldn’t have made it.” His friends: first and foremost “Uli, Franz and Kalle”, as he describes his former teammates. Hoeneß, Beckenbauer, Rummenigge – they all used to play, win and celebrate with him. Now it was time to give something back. However, nobody cared much about his goals in 1982.
“Just not doing anything. Sitting around all day and doing nothing meaningful – that was the downfall”, is how he analysed his escape into alcoholism. “At celebrity games”, his companion Uli Hoeneß ranted, “they got him drunk and then made fun of him”. So they persuaded him to go into rehab, and he also sought psychiatric help. His wife reconsidered their divorce. However, his biggest help probably came in the form of the worst paid contract he had ever been given by FC Bayern: From 1992, he was once again employed by the club he loved with all his heart, and his interviews took on a different tone: “I am utterly happy and I am busy”, he said in 1993, when he was allowed to train Bayern’s youth team.
In addition, he has worked as sponsor supervisor, talent scout, striker and goalkeeper coach, co-manager for the professionals and most recently for the amateurs. But then he was struck by Alzheimer’s disease. That must have been around 2014. The last stage in the life of the Bomber of the Nation.