Football in Shadow Against Black Background

Footballers Who Have Died on the Pitch

Generally speaking, football is not among the most dangerous of pursuits in the sporting world. Broken bones, tendon injuries, twists and strains are, of course, always a possibility, but when compared to the likes of Formula 1, Horse Racing, Rugby, or the NFL – and to a greater extent Boxing and the UFC – the global game appears relatively safe.

Despite this apparent safety, football is not immune to providing the stage for truly tragic events. The current century has brought a scattering of such incidents, including on the biggest stage of all – serving as a reminder that, whilst the result of the latest match may seem like the be-all and end-all, football is, after all, only a game.

Back From the Dead

Footballer Holding Ball Under Arm

Here we look back at a selection of these incidents, beginning with the players who are thankfully still with us.

Christian Eriksen: Parken Stadium, 12th June 2021

The delayed Euro 2020 tournament was one of the most anticipated sporting events of recent times – and a welcome return to something resembling normality. However, as early as the first round of the competition, the role of sport in the grand scheme of things was put firmly in perspective.

In the 42nd minute of his side’s clash with Finland, Denmark’s Christian Eriksen staggered to the ground when receiving a throw-in with nobody near him. It immediately became clear that something out of the ordinary had occurred. What followed was one of the most agonising periods of any sporting event in recent memory, as Eriksen received CPR and was treated with a defibrillator on the pitch as his teammates formed a circle of support around his prone body.

Thankfully, to the relief of the watching world, this story had a happy ending. By the 15th of June Eriksen was well enough to post a picture of himself recovering in hospital and was swiftly fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. Scoring within two minutes of his international return on the 26th March 2022, Eriksen is currently going strong with Manchester United in the Premier League.

Fabrice Muamba: White Hart Lane, 17th March 2022

Nine years before events at Parken Stadium, a similarly horrifying scenario unfolded in an FA Cup Quarter Final clash between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane. Midway through the first half, former England under-21 international Fabrice Muamba collapsed to the turf, sparking immediate concern from players, officials and fans.

Aided by a consultant cardiologist, who happened to be in the crowd, and the on-site medical staff, Muamba was kept alive and transferred to the London Chest Hospital. However, it had been touch and go throughout the ordeal, with it later coming to light that his heart had stopped for a period of 78 minutes.

In common with Eriksen, Muamba was fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator. However, unlike Eriksen, he was unable to recommence his career as a professional footballer, announcing his retirement from the game on 15th August 2012. Muamba has, however, remained in the game and is the current coach of the Bolton Under-15s side.

And Those Who Sadly Didn’t Make It

Isolated Black Ribbon on Stone Surface

Here we outline some of the real tragedies to have occurred in football as we remember those who devastatingly died playing the game they loved.

Marc-Vivien Foe: Stade de Gerland, 26th June 2003

A player well-known to UK fans following 38 appearances for West Ham United and a further 35 for Manchester City, Marc-Vivien Foe was a talented and respected midfielder for both club and country. Capped 62 times for Cameroon, it was when in the process of winning that 62nd cap that Foe inexplicably collapsed in the centre circle during a Confederations Cup clash with France.

Despite the best efforts of the medics, who attempted to revive him for around 45 minutes, Foe was pronounced dead at the Stadium’s Medical Centre at just 28 years of age. Following an autopsy, it was discovered that Foe suffered from a heart condition known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy – an illness which increases the risk of sudden death during physical exercise.

Cheikh Tioté: Beijing Enterprise Group Training Ground, 5th June 2017

Tough-tackling Cheikh Tioté racked up 88 appearances in the Dutch and Belgian leagues during his early career but is best remembered on British shores for his seven-year stint with Newcastle United in the Premier League. Playing 139 times for the Magpies, Ivory Coast international Tiote scored just once, but it was a memorable one.

With his successful stay on Tyneside coming to an end, Tiote moved to Beijing Enterprises Group in 2017. It was on the training pitch of the China League One club that Tiote was struck down by a cardiac arrest, and tragically could not be saved. Taken at just 30 years of age, Tioté left behind three children.

Antonio Puerta: Sánchez Pizjuán, 25th August 2007

Born and bred in Seville, Antonio Puerta progressed through the youth system of his home town club, Sevilla, making his debut for the senior side in 2004. An extremely talented wingback, Puerta was capped by the national side at Under-21, Under-23, and senior level and looked a star firmly on the rise – only to be cruelly taken at only 22 years of age.

During Sevilla’s opening home game of the 2007/08 La Liga season, Puerta collapsed in the penalty area ten minutes before half-time. Initially roused by his teammates and medical staff, he managed to walk back to the changing room, only to collapse again. Despite being resuscitated and transferred to the intensive care unit of Virgen del Rocio hospital, the repeated cardiac arrests had caused irreversible damage, and Puerta passed away on the 28th of August 2007.

The fact that Puerta’s girlfriend was pregnant with their first child at the time only added further to the heartbreak. Sevilla retired the number 16 shirt in Puerta’s honour, and his death triggered the widespread installation of resuscitation rooms in stadiums around the world.

Miklós Fehér: Estádio D. Afonso Henriques, 25th January 2004

Born in Hungary in 1979, Miklós Fehèr began his career with Győri ETO, before moving to the Portuguese league to join Porto in 1998. One of the more talented Hungarian footballers of his generation, Feher won the Young Hungarian Player of the Year Award in 1997. Picking up a Primeira Liga and Portuguese Cup winners medal with Porto, he then enjoyed spells at Salgueiros and Braga before moving to another of the Portuguese giants, Benfica, ahead of the 2002/03 campaign.

It was whilst playing for The Eagles in a 2004 clash with Guimaraes that the 24-year-old striker fell to the ground in stoppage time. Having only arrived as a late substitute, Fehér had laid on the winning goal and only just received a yellow card when struck down by a major cardiac event. Despite every effort to save him, the death of the 25-cap international was confirmed later that same evening. Fehér’s death was a result of the combination of an irregular heartbeat and the aforementioned condition, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Fehér’s number 29 shirt has been retired by Benfica and, in 2004/05, Benfica president, manager Giovanni Trapatoni, and every member of the first team squad travelled to Hungary to present Fehér’s family with a 2004/05 Primeira Liga winners medal.

How Often Does it Happen?

Ambulance with Flashing Lights

Sadly, the above list highlights only the more high-profile football players who have been struck down whilst playing. The overall numbers are far higher than you might anticipate.

No doubt triggered into action by the frightening and tragic events outlined above – and others of similar ilk – FIFA commissioned a full report into the issue. Published in 2020 by Saarland University in Germany, the report listed 617 cases of players dying whilst playing, or shortly after playing, between 2014 and 2018.

Sobering as those statistics are, it is important to place that figure of 617 into some global perspective. Each year, an estimated 250 million people play football around the world, of which 617 is a small fraction of a percentage.

Why Does It Happen?

ECG Graph and Stethoscope

Rather than coming as a result of anything inherently dangerous in the game, the majority of footballing-related deaths have been attributable to an underlying heart condition exacerbated by exercise. It is, however, theorised that the extreme physical demands placed on elite-level athletes, such as footballers, are a contributing factor to the number of deaths we have seen over the years.

If any positive can be drawn from all of the above, it is that awareness of the potentially fatal consequences of undetected heart issues in sports has never been greater. All academy players in the UK are routinely screened for heart problems at 16 years of age, whilst the FA recommends that professional players continue to undergo regular screening up to the age of 25.