Thirty-three thousand fans erupted into a chorus of ‘Walking in a Robson wonderland’ as an incomparable personality entered the St James’s Park turf for a match in aid of a charity he had instituted. Sir Bobby Robson was 76 years old, wheelchair-bound, physically exhausted and evidently, rapidly losing his fifth fight against cancer.
But, somehow, in a vivid testament to his self-confessed “addiction to football” and rare benevolence, he was present to watch a poetically-planned rendition of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™ semi-final. On the former occasion in Turin, Germany beat the England side Robson guided on penalties. On the latter, on 26 July in Newcastle, a side comprising the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer edged Guido Buchwald, Thomas Helmer, Lothar Matthaus and Co 3-2.
That victory was a fitting final tribute to a man who graced Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and England as a cute, elusive playmaker, and the likes of Ipswich Town, PSV, Barcelona, Newcastle United and his country as a mightily passionate and proficient coach. For five days later, Sir Bobby breathed his last breath.
“It has been one of the privileges of my life to have met him and to have been enthused by him,” said Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson of a man who, in December, was posthumously handed the FIFA Fair Play Award. “He’s always influenced me, but what made him so special was he influenced people who didn't know him. They admired his courage, his dignity, his enthusiasm.”
An illustrious former opponent of Robson’s also departed. Karl Koller, a multifunctional midfielder widely regarded as one of Austria’s all-time greats, competed – and scored - against the England international in a 2-2 draw at Sweden 1958. Alzheimer's disease claimed the long-serving First Vienna player’s life in January, 15 days shy of his 80th birthday.
Koller was not the only single-club man to die in 2009. Attacking midfielder Giacomo Bulgarelli, who was told in his youth he was too slow to make it as a footballer, played 486 matches for hometown club Bologna, helping them win Serie A in 1964, and his technical brilliance earned him 27 caps for Italy. He passed away after a long illness, while Ray Lambert (87), Joop Ville and Johnny Dixon (both 85), Aage Rou Jensen (84) and Vladimir Fedotov (66), who turned out for Liverpool, Harlem, Aston Villa, AGF and CSKA Moscow respectively, all passed away.
The death of another one-club player had a particularly agonising effect on world football. Dani Jarque’s life promised so much as August began: he was 26, had just been made Espanyol captain and was being tipped to earn a Spain call-up, while his girlfriend was seven months pregnant with his child. However, on a pre-season tour of Italy, the centre-back suffered a fatal heart attack.
“I feel like I have lost a son,” said former Espanyol coach Ramon Moya, who handed Jarque his professional debut. “Jarque was a great player, a great leader and a great person. He was also my friend.”
Jarque was not the only man to die in the midst of his playing career in 2009. Clermont Foot defender Clement Pinault passed away, aged 23, four days after suffering a heart attack; the same fate claimed the life of 31-year-old Mexico forward Antonio de Nigris, who had represented 12 clubs in six countries; South African right-back Jan Sillo, 32, and Colombia U-20 forward Hernan Cordoba were the victims of car accidents; 70-times-capped Malawi midfielder Christopher John Banda died, then 35, after collapsing; Jamaica international Oraine Simpson was fatally stabbed, when only 26; United Arab Emirates forward Salem Saad, 31, suffered a heart attack; and Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke tragically committed suicide, aged 32.
South America, too, lost a series of notables. Juan Carlos Munoz, a quick, skilful right winger who formed part of River Plate’s revered La Maquina attack and helped Argenitna conquer the Copa America in 1945, died of a heart attack at the age of 90. Vasco legend Friaca, best known for scoring the opener for Brazil in their 2-1 loss to Uruguay in the deciding match of the FIFA World Cup in 1950, was taken, at the age of 84, by organ failure, which was also responsible for the death of Zequinha, who dazzled for Palmeiras in the 1960s and was in his country’s Chile 1962-winning squad. Juvenal, a team-mate of Fraica’s on that fateful Maracanaço afternoon, died of respiratory failure, aged 85, while abdominal cancer former Seleção goalkeeper Ze Carlos’s life after 47 years. Meanwhile, ex-Chile internationals Fernando Cornejo, who was 39, and 66-year-old playmaker Francisco Valdes passed away.
Several other former internationals deceased during 2009, including Wales playmaker Aubrey Powell (90), Italy holding midfielder Giuseppe Chiappella (85), France forwards Leon Glovacki (81) and Rene Bliard (79), Switzerland centre-back Willy Kernen (80), Yugoslavia defender Tomislav Crnkovic (79), Bulgaria midfielder Nikola Kovachev (75), Switzerland midfielder Norbert Eschmann (75), Iraq striker Ammo Baba (74), Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Alan Kelly (72), Greece attacking midfielder Stelios Skevofilakas (69), Hungary utility man Sandor Katona (66), Czechoslovakia frontrunner Frantisek Vesely (65), England left-back Bobby Thomson (65), Austria defender Peter Persidis (61), Iran attacker Safar Iranpak (61), Nigeria golkeeper Best Ogedegbe (55) and Russia defender Andrei Ivanov (42).
Football was not only mourning players and coaches in 2009, but also other influential figures within the sport. Among them were Robert Louis-Dreyfus (63), a major shareholder in Marseille whose innovation and passion was of great benefit to world football; honorary FIFA Vice-President David Will CBE (75); Dr Abdel Halim Mohammed (99), a central figure in the ascent of African footbal; and former Spanish Football Federation president Pablo Porta (85).
As the year drew to a conclusion, 74-year-old former Manchester United player Albert Scanlon died over a half-century after he belied the odds to survive the Munich Air Disaster. “He will be a great loss,” rued current Red Devils manager Ferguson.
Scanlon is not the only 2009 death whom the sport will greatly miss. So, to all the aforementioned, and the countless other footballing personalities who left us over this past 12 months, thank you, sincerely, for your contributions. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.