Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was sent off in the dying moments of an enthralling but ultimately unsuccessful fightback against Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League quarter-final. It may well turn out to be the 40-year-old’s last ever act in European football.
To me, this just feels all wrong. It was no way for one of the undisputed legends of the modern game to end his European club football career – especially not after his Italy career had ended in such heartbreaking fashion when the Azzurri failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
It’s probably scant consolation for Gigi, but if this season really is his last as a professional footballer, he won’t be the first football legend whose career didn’t get the glorious ending it deserved.
Here are five other stars who discovered just how cruel the beautiful game can be.
1. Gary Lineker – Thwarted by Taylor in Swedish Debacle
Incredible as it seems to someone of my generation, many football fans may not realise that Gary Lineker – the cheerful, unassuming bloke who presents Match of the Day and makes terrible puns – is also one of England’s greatest ever strikers.
As well as winning the Golden Boot at the 1986 FIFA World Cup – mostly thanks to a magnificent hat trick against Poland – the former Leicester, Everton and Spurs man was one of few British players to excel in continental club football, scoring 52 goals in three seasons at Barcelona.
Time and again, Lineker rescued England with his opportunistic goals – so who better to dig the Three Lions out of a hole against host nation Sweden at the 1992 European Championships?
Well, according to manager Graham Taylor, the answer was Arsenal’s Alan Smith (total England goal tally: two), not Lineker – who had scored 48 international goals, just one short of what was then the all-time record set by Bobby Charlton.
So off went Lineker in his final game for England; on came Smith; and out went England, deservedly beaten 2-1 by the Swedes. Oh, and Smith didn’t score.
2. Diego Maradona – From Glory in Mexico to Disgrace in the USA
Some would say that Maradona’s compatriot Lionel Messi has already surpassed him in the ‘GOAT’ stakes.
That’s not what Messi thinks. He once said of the man who inspired Argentina’s second World Cup win in 1986: “Even if I played for a million years, I’d never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway. He’s the greatest there’s ever been.”
Anyone who’s seen Maradona’s mesmerising solo goal against England in the quarter-final of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico would be hard pushed to disagree.
Surely a man of such prodigious talent would go out in a blaze of glory when his time came?
Er, no. Not exactly. He was expelled from the 1994 World Cup in the USA after testing positive for the banned stimulant ephedrine.
He never played for Argentina again.
3. Zinedine Zidane – Hero of France’s World Cup Triumph Loses His Head in Germany
Sometimes, you can only really tell how influential a great player is when he isn’t playing.
Midfield maestro Zinedine Zidane was the best of an extremely talented bunch in the all-conquering France sides who won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championships.
Yet it was only in 2002 that we truly realised how important he was, as holders France suffered a shock defeat against Senegal and could only draw 0-0 against Uruguay without their injured talisman.
Out of sheer desperation, France manager Roger Lemerre fielded Zidane in Les Bleus’ last group match against Denmark, but he obviously wasn’t match-fit and France crashed out after a 2-0 defeat.
France fared far better in the next World Cup – which would be Zidane’s last – eliminating Spain, Brazil and Portugal en route to their second final in three World Cups, where they faced Italy. The stage was set for Zizou to become one of just a handful of players in history to have won more than one World Cup, and to end his glorious career on a high.
For most of the game, it was all going according to the script, with Zidane scoring France’s only goal in a cagey match which went to extra time, with the two sides deadlocked at 1-1.
Then, in the second half of extra time, Italy’s goalscorer Marco Materazzi said something disparaging about Zizou’s sister, and the Frenchman both lost his head and used it to butt the Italian in the chest.
It could hardly have been a more obvious red card offence, and the referee had no hesitation in sending him off.
That moment of madness in Berlin was the last act of Zidane’s playing career – such an ignominious end for such a wonderful player.
To add injury to insult, the Azzurri went on to beat France on penalties and lift their fourth World Cup.
4. Iker Casillas – Spurned & Humiliated by the Love of His Life
Hardly any players have more international trophies to their name than Zidane. Former Spain goalkeeper Iker Casillas is one of them.
Casillas won two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup in an international career which saw him earn a staggering 167 caps for his country.
He is also a Real Madrid legend, who won everything there was to win – including three Champions Leagues – with Los Blancos, whom he represented at every level over 25 years.
Well, I say Casillas is a Real Madrid legend. I should say that he was one – before his relationship with the club he’d always loved deteriorated beyond repair. He was unceremoniously booted out in 2015, moving to FC Porto.
Various reasons have been given for this – his declining performances, his barely-concealed resentment of being reduced to a bit-part role at the club, along with allegations that he leaked dressing room secrets to the press.
Even so, his final goodbye to Real Madrid still feels like one of the gravest injustices I’ve ever witnessed in football.
In an empty Bernabéu – the scene of so many of Casillas’ greatest exploits, only now without a single fan, teammate or director to thank him for more than two decades of service – the goalkeeper read out a terse prepared statement, broke down in tears and left through the back door.
Of course, football can be a callous business, and it seems likely that Casillas’ conduct did fall short of the highest standards of professionalism.
But still, a player of his calibre – who had lived and breathed Real Madrid all his life – deserved much, much better than that miserably low-key farewell.
5. Steven Gerrard – Tragedy & Farce Rolled Into One for Liverpool Legend
Ah yes. Poor Stevie G. His career definitely deserved a more fitting end.
One of England’s much-vaunted Golden Generation, midfield dynamo Steven Gerrard never shone quite as brightly for his country as for his beloved Liverpool. But boy, did he excel for the Reds.
The one major club honour to elude him – and indeed every Liverpool player since 1990 – was the league title.
He never came closer than in the 2013/2014 season, when his seemingly telepathic understanding with Uruguay striker Luis Suárez was a major factor in a scintillating series of performances which saw the Reds destroy everyone in their path.
Then José Mourinho’s Chelsea turned up at Anfield and didn’t so much park the bus as park an entire fleet of them in their own half. The Reds simply couldn’t get behind the Blues’ massed ranks. And then…
Well, most Premier League fans know what happened next. As half time approached, Gerrard fell over to leave Demba Ba clean through on goal, Ba took his chance, Chelsea added a second breakaway goal in the dying moments of the match, and Liverpool’s title challenge never recovered.
To compound Gerrard’s misery, it was his mistake against Uruguay which cost England the game – and indeed their chances of progressing in the 2014 World Cup – when his awful header left Luis Suárez with just the keeper to beat. The striker duly netted his second of the game to send the Three Lions crashing out in Gerrard’s last ever international tournament.
That was the one time Gerrard wouldn’t have wanted to set up his Liverpool teammate and friend – and things only got worse the following season, which would be Gerrard’s last for the Reds.
He was sent off for a brainless challenge almost as soon as he’d come on in his last ever clash with Manchester United; his last ever Anfield game was a 3-1 home defeat to lowly Crystal Palace; and his last ever Liverpool match was a 6-1 drubbing at Stoke, before he saw out what little remained of his playing career at LA Galaxy in the USA.
Still, at least he scored the Reds’ only goal in the Stoke game. I suppose that’s something.