The World Cup is a time of celebration and glory for soccer players and their billions of fans around the globe. But in pursuit of the most illustrious championship in sports, some athletes paid the ultimate price.
Nigerian-born midfielder Sam Okwaraji left home for Europe to earn a Ph.D., but he got a little sidetracked from his studies when he became a professional soccer player. He suited up for several teams in the 1980s, but joined Nigeria’s national team in 1988. In August 1989, Okwaraji’s squad squared off against Angola in an all-Africa World Cup qualifier—top finishers won spots in the 1990 FIFA World Cup. Near the end of the game, an Angolan player acted out and received a “red card” from an official—in other words, an ejection. He refused to leave the field and his teammates rallied to his side…while a few feet away, Okwaraji crumpled to the ground. Nigerian players ran to help him, but he had already died right there, in front of thousands of fans and millions watching on TV. Cause of death: The 25-year-old player had an enlarged heart and high blood pressure.
The FIFA Confederations Cup is nicknamed the “Mini World Cup”—it’s a tournament held every four years with teams from every continent along with the previous World Cup winner and the next World Cup’s host nation. In the 2003 Confederations Cup semifinal in France, Cameroon faced Colombia. As the game wound down with Cameroon holding on to a 1-0 lead, midfielder Marc-Vivien Foé suddenly stopped running and hit the ground. Medical staff took him off the field and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and tried in vain to re-start his heart. While his team finished the game, Foé died in the stadium’s medical area. An autopsy found that he had an undiagnosed ailment that caused enlarged heart cells and too-thick ventricular walls. Foé was only 28.
Andrés Escobar didn’t die on the field…but a goof he made as part of the Colombian team in the 1994 World Cup would directly lead to his death. Colombia was expected to advance far into the tournament, and an early game against the usually so-so American team was thought to be a gimme for the South American powerhouse. With the score 0-0 as halftime approached, Andrés Escobar, a Colombian defender, misjudged a block and somehow kicked the ball into his own net. That made the score USA 1, Colombia 0. The Americans held out for the surprise win, and Colombia was soon eliminated from the tournament. Escobar returned to his hometown of Medellin, and as he left a restaurant one night at 3:30 a.m., he was assaulted by three men who shot him 12 times. (Police believe some of Colombia’s many crime bosses and cartels had a lot of money riding on the game…and Escobar ruined it for them.)