At the best of times football is a short career, maybe spanning 20 years for the lucky few, but for many the strains put on their bodies sees them winding down earlier then they might like. For an unfortunate minority, this decision is taken out of their hands entirely.
However, a shortened career does not necessarily mean an unfulfilled one, with a prime example of some stars burning brighter than others being goalscoring legend Marco van Basten.
Van Basten was a player blessed with the touch and technique synonymous with all the greatest Dutch talent, and alongside his clinical eye for goal he became one of Europe’s most feared strikers of the late 1980s and early '90s. He was also a man with shoulders broad enough to bear the pressure to perform in even the biggest games, none more so than the UEFA EURO 88 final.
Having netted a late winner in the semi-final against West Germany he scored the goal that would define his career against the USSR, a ferocious dipping volley struck from an audacious angle to tie up the Netherlands’ first international title. He was also crowned top scorer and player of the tournament.
The former FIFA World Player of the Year and three-time Ballon d’Or winner went on to win two European Cups and three league titles with the awe-inspiring AC Milan team of the early '90s before an ankle injury forced him to retire at 30, following a long fitness battle. One of his doctors, Rene Martin, reflected: “Marco always played football like a ballerina, but his ankle eventually couldn't take the strain."
While Van Basten is one of the most talented to see his playing days cut short, there can surely be none more influential to a single club than Uli Hoeness. Having made his debut for Bayern Munich at the tender age of 18, the attacking midfielder helped the club towards its third ever Bundesliga title in his second season – the first of three back-to-back league wins.
This was the beginning of Bayern’s domination of German football, and Hoeness has been crucial to establishing the Bavarian giants' stranglehold both on and off the pitch. His on the field influence was no better demonstrated than in his first European Cup win, scoring twice in the 4-0 1974 final replay win over Atletico Madrid, his second a beautifully mazy breakaway run. Two more consecutive European titles followed, before Bayern's first-ever Intercontinental Cup in 1976.
He was also a vital member of the European Championship and FIFA World Cup™-winning Germany sides of 1972 and 1974. However, a knee injury suffered in the 1975 European Cup final against Leeds United dogged his career from then on, forcing him to quit the game at 27.
Nonetheless, Hoeness was immediately instated as Bayern's general manager, and was elected the club's president in November 2009. During the last three decades Bayern have become a European behemoth, accumulating 48 trophies since his debut; prior to that, they had just seven. Reflecting on his managerial role, he said: "Nowadays, nobody would be able anymore to survive in this business for more than 30 years. This time is over, I am the last one of this kind.”
Another man who found success after being forced off the field earlier than he’d like is legendary coach Brian Clough, but he certainly impressed during his time with his boots on. A free-scoring centre-forward for both hometown club Middlesbrough and fellow north-east England club Sunderland, he grabbed 251 goals in 274 Second Division games.
A knee injury saw him effectively retire at 27, but by 30 he had bagged his first managerial job at nearby Hartlepool. By 40 he had a First Division title to his name at Derby County and had just joined rivals Nottingham Forest. By 43 he had just completed back-to-back European Cup wins with Forest, the first English manager to win the title and the last British club to keep the cup for two successive years.
Lucky number 13
Europe may have been Clough’s crowning glory, but the world stage has seen many players record some of their finest moments in what turned out to be short careers. In just a single FIFA World Cup tournament, one man left the goalscoring record book in tatters, remaining that way today. He is Just Fontaine.
Starring for France in Sweden 58, he almost singlehandedly won Les Bleus a bronze medal at the tournament, scoring 13 goals in just six games – a feat no one has come close to bettering. Unfortunately, without the advances in medical science we see today, he had to retire at 28 following a broken leg he suffered a few years earlier.
Four of his record haul came in the third-placed match with Germany, something he can’t easily forget: "I still get ten letters a week from German fans asking why this happened. They can't understand how someone could score four goals against a German defence."
Brazilian legend Tostao will always be remembered for his exploits at the FIFA World Cup. Sadly, a recurring eye injury eventually forced him to retire at the tender age of 26 in 1973, having almost kept him out of the hallowed Seleção side of 1970.
Arguably his finest moment with this extraordinarily talented team was in the 1970 final itself, winning the ball and playing the first pass of Carlos Alberto’s legendary goal, which capped off their 4-1 victory over Italy. After retirement, Tostao's intelligence saw him land back on his feet, training to become a doctor before recently returning to football and becoming a celebrated journalist.
George Cohen's injury cost the game an outstanding player while he was still at his peak.
Former England manager Sir Alf Ramsey on his FIFA World Cup-winning right back
Four years prior to Tostao’s triumph, another national legend, England full-back George Cohen, was similarly experiencing the pinnacle of his shortened career. Playing all six of the Three Lions’ games en route to their FIFA World Cup victory in 1966, as part of a defence that conceded just four goals, the nippy full-back was a vital cog in Sir Alf Ramsey’s machine.
The England coach was full of praise for Cohen, who spent his entire career at Fulham, clocking up 459 appearances, a tally bettered by only four others. “George had all the qualities required of an international player, particularly in defence. His injury cost the game an outstanding player while he was still at his peak.” In this case, it was Cohen's knee that forced him to leave football at 29.
Money doesn’t necessarily buy you medical longevity either. Two former holders of the world record transfer fee have had to call time on their careers earlier then they would have liked. Dynamic Dane Harald Nielsen, known as Gold-Harald, made his big money move from Bologna to Inter Milan for £300,000, having averaged a goal-per-game to lead il Rossoblu to their most recent Serie A success in 1963/64. However a recurring back injury saw him tail off and eventually retire at 29, although he went on to be pivotal in the professionalisation of Danish football.
Before him, however, came Bernabe Ferreyra, who was forced out of the game at 30 after a series of injuries. Known as ‘The Mortar of Rufino’ for his powerful shot, the Argentinian goal-machine had already made a huge mark for club River Plate when he departed. He joined the Buenos Aires side for a fee 32,000 pesos (£23,000) in 1932, a sum which remained a world record for 20 years - no record fee has remained unsurpassed for longer - and was part of the free-spending period that gave birth to River's nickname Los Millonarios.
With his lightning reactions and mixture of speed and strength, Ferreyra ended his career with 187 goals in 185 games. His prowess was such that for a season local newspaper Critica offered medals to any goalkeeper who could prevent him scoring. Only two succeeded.
Across the city during the same period at La Bombonera, Boca Juniors had a striker of their own who would suffer a remarkably similar fate. Almost exactly a year younger, Francisco Varallo retired at 30 from a knee injury, but not before writing his name into Los Xeneizes’ record books. El cañoncito, the little canon, racked up 185 goals in the capital, a tally which stood as a record for 69 years, before being broken in 2009 by modern day club legend Martin Palermo. And all that after playing in the first ever FIFA World Cup final in 1930.