Tragic Details About Soccer's Biggest Legends

There's a reason soccer is considered "the beautiful game." It not only brings joy to the players on the field as they glide over every blade of grass and feel the ball at their feet, but it also delights those watching in the stands or at home. A relationship with this game is an emotional affair, connecting with the human spirit in a way few other sports can. Even when the results go against a team, there's a power — a resilient belief — in carrying on and trying again. That's the magic of soccer.

Soccer legends such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Iker Casillas, Diego Maradona, and Kaká have all left their undeniable mark on the sport, inspiring generations. Yet, despite their godlike statuses in soccer and seeming invincibility, they are human beings, too. They have experienced their share of tragedies and sorrows — including illnesses and the deaths of children. In some cases, these events have changed the trajectory of their lives, never mind their careers. With that said, let's take a look at some of the sad stories that have impacted soccer's biggest legends.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Widely regarded as one of the best soccer players of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo has broken countless records at both the club and international levels. Off the field, Ronaldo is known as a family man who loves to spend time with his children and partner Georgina Rodríguez. In October 2021, Ronaldo announced on his Instagram account that he and Rodríguez were expecting twins.

In April 2022, Rodríguez gave birth to a baby boy and a girl. However, the boy passed away during childbirth, as Ronaldo revealed in an emotional Instagram post. The Portuguese soccer star expressed the couple's sadness about the tragic event but took the time to thank the nurses and doctors for their assistance, also asking for privacy and understanding during this tough time.

Ronaldo was playing for Manchester United at the time and missed the club's important game against rival Liverpool at Anfield Stadium. As a touching tribute to Ronaldo, the Liverpool fans gave a standing ovation in the seventh minute (to symbolize the player's iconic number seven jersey) and sang "You'll Never Walk Alone." On Instagram, Ronaldo thanked the Liverpool fans for the classy gesture and said, "Me and my family will never forget this moment of respect and compassion."

Andrés Escobar

In 1994, Andrés Escobar and the Colombia national soccer team entered the FIFA World Cup as one of the favorites to lift the trophy. Despite the hype and growing expectation from their fans, the side faltered at the first hurdle, going out in the group stage after two losses and a singular win. Escobar, 27, came under extreme fire because of a disastrous own goal that helped the USA to defeat Colombia 2-1 in the team's second game of the competition. 

According to SPORTbible, Escobar's friends advised him to stay out of the limelight due to reports in Colombia that a drug cartel was unhappy since they had placed big money on that match. However, the defender refused and returned to his country after the team's elimination from the tournament.

In July 1994, Escobar was shot 12 times and murdered outside of a club in the city of Medellín, per The Orlando Sentinel. According to witnesses, one perpetrator shouted "Goal" at him after every shot. The news of Escobar's murder sent shockwaves throughout the soccer world, as no one could believe such a senseless tragedy took place because of a game.

Sergio Agüero

Sergio Agüero's move to soccer team Barcelona was meant to be the last hurrah of a remarkable and decorated career. The Argentine soccer star, affectionally known as Kun Agüero, had become a legend at Manchester City, earning the title of the club's all-time record goalscorer during his decade in English soccer.

In May 2021, he took on a new challenge, deciding to return to Spain and play for Barcelona. However, Agüero made only five appearances for his new side before being taken to hospital at halftime during an October La Liga game against Alavés, after complaining about pains in his chest and dizzy spells, per CNN.

In December 2021, Agüero and Barcelona called a press conference, revealing his diagnosis of cardiac arrhythmia and retirement from the field. "This press conference is to communicate that I've decided to stop playing soccer," he said (via CNN). "It's a very hard moment but I'm at peace with the decision I made." Agüero revealed he had consulted with doctors after his health scare to see what could be done, but they advised him it would be best to hang up his boots.

Diego Maradona

When discussing the greatest footballers of all time, Diego Maradona is a name that should always be in any serious conversation. The Argentine wizard dazzled fans and players with his trickery and mastery of the ball, filling many cabinets with trophies and individual awards. He even scored one of the most infamous goals of all time with his hand. Despite his success on the field, Maradona's off-the-field activities, such as an addiction to cocaine and alleged links to criminal syndicates, became well-publicized too, per BBC.

According to ESPN, Maradona was rushed to the hospital for emergency brain surgery for a subdural hematoma in November 2020. After the procedure, the doctor stated the surgery had gone well and Maradona was showing positive signs in his recovery.

Two weeks later, Maradona passed away at the age of 60. According to Associated Press, he died from a heart attack. The world expressed condolences for the passing of the soccer legend as Argentina's president declared three days of national mourning in remembrance of Maradona.

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The Busby Babes

One of the greatest tragedies in soccer history happened on February 6, 1958, the day when 23 people lost their lives in what has been dubbed the Munich air disaster, according to the official Manchester United website.

The Manchester United players and staff were on their way back to England after having played Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup. Their airplane stopped in Munich, Germany, to refuel: However, there were complications with the take-off. When the plane tried to depart for a third time, it crashed. As a result, eight players, three Manchester United staff members, eight journalists, as well as the aircraft captain, a crew member, a travel agent, and a friend of manager Matt Busby lost their lives.

This Manchester United team was affectionately known as "Busby's Babes" since most of them were in their early 20s and at the start of their careers. Busby survived the crash and went on to build another successful team which won the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica, per ESPN. The Munich air disaster has never been forgotten, though, and the club holds a yearly remembrance for this fateful day.

Andrés Iniesta

The stars aligned for Andrés Iniesta's career. Not only was he a gifted soccer player with incredible vision and creativity, but he also arrived at a time when Barcelona and Spain dominated the sport. As a result, trophies followed him, including all of the biggest prizes in the game, such as the UEFA European Championship, La Liga, and the UEFA Champions League. Iniesta was also the player who scored the goal that won Spain its first-ever World Cup in the 2010 final against the Netherlands.

While the player may have appeared to be on top of the world, he later opened up about his need for treatment for depression. Appearing in Jordi Wild's "The Wild Project" (translated by Marca), Iniesta explained how he sought treatment after the passing of his friend Dani Jarque in 2009. "You get into your body and your mind and everything looks black," he said. "I was looking forward to the night so I could take my pill and rest. That was the moment of greatest pleasure."

Iniesta said the reason he disclosed his depression was to encourage others to look for assistance if they are struggling with mental health.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Alfredo Di Stéfano

Argentine-born Alfredo Di Stéfano is a name synonymous with Spanish soccer, especially due to his close association with Real Madrid, where he broke numerous records as the side dominated the European soccer scene. Di Stéfano made soccer look easy as he banged in goals for fun, racked up an impressive array of titles, and became European Footballer of the Year on two occasions, per BBC.

In 1963, though, he found himself the target of a group looking to make a serious political statement in Venezuela. According to ESPN, Di Stéfano was kidnapped by the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) who wanted to attract attention to their cause: the supposed electoral fraud about to be instigated by Venezuelan President Romulo Betancourt. When Real Madrid went to play a friendly in Venezuela, FALN took the player from his hotel room.

Speaking about the ordeal, Di Stéfano said, ”I was blindfolded when the gang took me from the hotel on Saturday and kept me locked in a bedroom." He was released after 56 hours. In his autobiography, the player said he was unharmed by the men and even played cards and chess with them while in captivity.

Gianluca Vialli

Italian striker Gianluca Vialli terrorized defenders throughout the '80s and '90s, becoming one of the most lethal goalscorers in the history of soccer. He also had an unbridled passion for the game, wearing his emotions on his sleeve where every triumph and heartache was laid bare for others to see.

After Vialli retired from playing, he went into management, coaching Chelsea and Watford, while also serving as a commentator. In 2018, he revealed to the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that he had been receiving treatment for pancreatic cancer for about a year but was feeling good. A year later, Vialli became the delegation chief for the Italian national soccer team, joining the group that went on to win UEFA Euro 2000 by beating England on penalties in the final.

Vialli announced he would be stepping down from his role with Italy in December 2022 to receive treatment after being diagnosed with cancer for a second time, according to Sky Sports. Vialli passed away in January 2023 at the age of 58.

Iker Casillas

Iker Casillas established himself as one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time in the early 2000s. A legend for Real Madrid and the Spanish national team, Casillas always appeared to defy gravity and have the ability to repel the ball from going in his goal, which resulted in him being dubbed "Saint Iker" by fans and pundits for his miraculous saves.

After three UEFA Champions League trophies, one FIFA World Club Cup, and five La Liga titles, Casillas departed Real Madrid for FC Porto in 2015, taking on a new challenge at the tail end of his career. Expectedly, the goalkeeper continued his heroics for the Portuguese giants, becoming a fan-favorite player in the process. However, during a training session in 2019, Casillas experienced what Porto described as "an acute myocardial infarction" and was taken to the hospital for further treatment, according to BBC.

After recovering from the heart attack, Casillas returned to Porto but stayed off the field. Then, in August 2020, he announced his official retirement from the sport. Per OneFootball, Casillas had a glittering and trophy-laden career for over two decades, which also saw him capture two UEFA European Championships with Spain.

Eric Abidal

Most soccer fans remember Eric Abidal for his stint at Barcelona and his time with the French soccer team. As a fast, strong, and tactically astute player, attackers feared coming up against him, since he was a world-class defender who always had their number. In 2011, during a glorious period in Barcelona's history when the club was widely regarded as one of the best soccer teams on the planet, it was announced that Abidal had a liver tumor, as per Marca.

After his diagnosis and with help from his cousin, Abidal underwent a liver transplant the next year (via Sports Illustrated). The French player would return to the field again before eventually retiring in 2014.

Speaking to Super Deportivo Radio (via Marca), Abidal explained how his Barcelona teammate Dani Alves offered to help by donating part of his liver, but Abidal turned him down, knowing Alves' career at a high level would likely be over. Abidal added that the experience had changed him. 

"Every day I remember how hard it was to live with cancer," he said. "I learnt a lot about myself and the people around me. Football was my passion and career, but during this time there isn't much time to think, after my illness it was different, you are just focused on helping other people."

Luis Enrique

As a soccer player, Luis Enrique did something few would dare to even think of: He played for bitter rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid and found success with both sides. In 2004, the legendary Pelé listed the Spanish forward as one of the greatest 125 players of all time, as per BBC. After hanging up his boots, Enrique went on to have a career as a soccer manager where he guided Barcelona to several trophies and established himself as a premier coach in the sport.

Eventually, the time arrived for Enrique to coach his beloved Spanish national team: However, he resigned from his tenure in June 2019 after only 11 months in charge, citing personal reasons, according to BBC's report. A few months later, Enrique posted a statement on his Twitter account (translated by talkSPORT) that his 9-year-old daughter Xana had passed away from osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer. He said: "We will miss you very much but we will remember you every day of our lives in the hope that in the future we will meet again."

The world of soccer rallied around Enrique and his family, with former players, clubs, sporting personalities, and dignitaries all extending their heartfelt condolences. After a brief break from the game, Enrique was reappointed as Spain's manager in November 2019.


During his professional soccer career, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known as Kaká, mesmerized fans and players with his majestic poise, incredible balance, and outstanding dribbling skills. The Brazilian soccer maestro won the big three in the form of the FIFA World Cup, UEFA Champions League, and Ballon d'Or during his playing days, per BBC, cementing himself as an all-time great of the game. However, his soccer dreams were almost shattered at the young age of 18.

Speaking to The Guardian in 2007, Kaká revealed that a serious accident in a swimming pool threatened not only his career but also his life. The soccer player fractured his spine, but he didn't let it deter him from his goal of becoming a professional soccer player, making a full recovery from the incident. Kaká explained how his faith played a major part in his recovery process, saying: "In that period, once again, I saw that God was with me. After three months, I started to play professionally with Sao Paulo. It was a mission. I think that football is my mission."