Gone but not forgotten: Remembering the sporting deaths of 2016

We've lost some iconic figures over the last 12 months

BY Sinéad Farrell 14:30 Saturday 31 December 2016, 14:30 31 Dec 2016

MITSUNORI CHIGITA / AP/Press Association Images

2016 has been an emotional year for sports fans.

From witnessing the Irish men's rugby team overcome the All Blacks for the first time in 111 years, to seeing Robbie Brady head us into the knock-out stages of the Euros, we've had plenty of events to celebrate.

But there's also been some moments of despair. Over the last 12 months, we've digested the news that some of the most enduring figures in sport have departed this world and, to paraphrase a line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet, we shall not look upon their like again.

As 2017 nears, we remember those sporting legends and acknowledge the legacies they leave behind.

Johan Cruyff 

Near the end of March, word filtered through that Barcelona football legend Johan Cruyff had died following a battle with lung cancer at the age of 68.

Throughout his career, Cruyff came to define a generation at Ajax, influenced the entire footballing philosophy at Barcelona, and also had a short but memorable stint at Spanish second division side Levante. He helped his native Holland to get to the final of the 1974 World Cup, where they lost out to West Germany.

He won eight Eredivisie titles and three European Cups with Ajax and as manager of Barcelona, he led them to four La Liga titles and the team's first European Cup in 1992.

And of course, there is a place reserved in the history books for his famous 'Cruyff turn,' which he produced against Sweden in 1974, as well as his famous goal from a nearly impossible angle against Atlético Madrid.

Writing for Newstalk Sport, Dutch football writer Elko Born stated that "people from all over the city started gathering to lay flowers and pay tribute to the man who gave so many people so many moments of joy and pride."

Off The Ball's European football correspondent Graham Hunter likened his status to that of Elvis, George Best and Robert De Niro, the type of figure who transcended the sport itself.

Anthony Foley

The Irish rugby community was stunned by the sudden passing of Munster legend Anthony Foley (42) in October. The former number 8 died while staying at a hotel in Paris, ahead of Munster's Champions Cup game with Racing 92.

Tasteful and personal tributes were paid to him in the days and weeks following his death.

The Munster squad congregated in a circle to sing 'Stand Up And Fight,' following their first game since his death. The Irish rugby team assembled into a figure 8 when facing the Haka before their clash in Chicago, and the Maori All Blacks presented a jersey with Foley's name on it before playing against Munster in Thomond Park.

Irish rugby legend Keith Wood told The Pat Kenny Show about his memories of growing up with Foley, as well as his fondness for hurling. Brian O'Driscoll and Liam Toland also paid tribute to Foley's memory on Off The Ball.

He earned 62 international caps throughout his career and also captained Munster to Heineken Cup glory in 2006. 

Muhammad Ali

The boxing great succumbed to his ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease during the summer at the age of 74. His death was caused by respiratory issues which were ultimately complicated by his condition. 

Ali is responsible for some of the most captivating moments in boxing history, winning his first world heavyweight championship at the age of just 22. Sports writer Jerry Izengberg appeared on Off The Ball shortly after Ali died and spoke candidly about his memories of the heavyweight title win over George Foreman in Zaire, Africa.

His poetic and witty turn of phrase endeared him to many, and his legacy has transcended the wider sporting community, including shaping much of modern MMA. His story is best captured by the documentary When We Were Kings, which Michael Carlson wrote about for Newstalk Sport, in the aftermath of Ali's passing.

Anne O'Brien

Arguably one of Ireland's finest ever footballers, Anne O'Brien passed away in August at the age of 60. Throughout a career spanning across three decades, O'Brien represented clubs in Ireland, France and Italy. 

She played for the All Stars in Dublin, before joining Reims in France in 1973. From there, she went to U.S. Calcio Trani, Lazio, Reggiana and AC Milan, and also played for Modena, Napoli and Prato.

She collected just four caps for Ireland over 18 years, largely due to the fact that the Women's Football Association of Ireland had limited resources at the time, as it was was a separate organisation to the FAI.

O'Brien spoke to Off The Ball two years ago from her base in Italy, about her amazing career.

Christy O'Connor (Senior and Junior)

At the age of 91, golfer Christy O'Connor passed away in May of this year, just four months after his nephew died suddenly in Spain at just 67. 

Known affectionately as 'Himself,' O'Connor Snr. enjoyed a fruitful golfing career in which he competed in The Open Championship 29 times, finishing in the top-ten on ten occasions. He played in ten Ryder Cups for Great Britain and Ireland, a record that has since been surpassed by Nick Faldo, when the team became Europe.

Off The Ball invited Padraig Harrington onto the show to share his memories of the Galway native, and he said he enjoyed watching O'Connor play golf "purely for the joy and beauty of hitting shots."

O'Connor Junior competed in over 20 major championships and was a member of the Ryder Cup winning team in 1989 in which he secured victory for the European team with his two-iron against Fred Couples. 

Arnold Palmer

Golf lost another prominent figure in 2016, when Arnold Palmer passed away in September, just before the start of the Ryder Cup which he won twice as captain.

'The King' won seven majors, including four Masters between 1958 and 1964. He played The Masters for 50 successive years and co-founded the Golf Channel.

His biographer James Dodson remembered him on Off The Ball after Palmer's passing and described how 'he raised golf's visibility and popularity five times over what it had been in the previous 300-400 years.'

Michael 'Ducksie' Walsh

The handball legend from Kilkenny passed away at 50 years of age in the first week of August, a few days after becoming ill while travelling home from a senior doubles tournament in Cavan.

Regarded as the most successful handballer of all time, Walsh won All-Ireland titles throughout his youth and, in 1984, won minor and junior grades before reaching the 60x30 Senior Singles semi-final.

He went on to become the youngest ever 'big alley' Senior Singles champion the following year at 19.

He finished his career with 38 senior All-Ireland medals in total, 16 All-Ireland 60 x 30 senior singles titles and seven All-Ireland 40 x 20 senior singles titles, as well as world titles. He developed an addiction to alcohol in his later years and entered a rehabilitation facility in Tipperary, remaining sober for the rest of his life.

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