15 Top Footballers That Were Forced To Retire Early

On the 10th of October 2022, Brighton & Hove Albion announced that Zambian midfielder, Enock Mwepu, has been forced to retire from football at the age of 24 following the diagnosis of a hereditary heart condition. In doing so, Mwepu joins the list of footballers that were forced to retire early.

Footballers have an average retirement age of 35 but with advances in sports science and lifestyle choices changing, more and more players are extending their careers in the beautiful game.

But some players have had to hang their boots well before the average retirement age, due to injuries and some other unfortunate circumstances.

In this post, FootballOrbit takes a look at some of the most high-profile examples of the players who were forced to retire early from soccer.

1. Fabrice Muamba

Fabrice Muamba - 15 Top Footballers that were Forced to retire early
Fabrice Muamba lies on the pitch after suddenly collapsing during an FA Cup match between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers at White Hart Lane on March 17, 2012. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images).

In March 2012, Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match between Bolton and Tottenham.

After receiving lengthy attention on the pitch from medical personnel — including a consultant cardiologist who was at the game as a fan — he was taken to the hospital.

Despite his heart having stopped for 78 minutes, he recovered at the hospital.

Following medical advice, Muamba sadly announced his retirement from professional football in August 2012 — aged just 24.

2. Sergio Aguero

Sergio Aguero announcing his forced retirement from football
Sergio Aguero of FC Barcelona announces his retirement from football due to a heart condition during a press conference at Nou Camp on December 15, 2021 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images).

Sergio Aguero is considered as one of the best strikers of his generation and one of the greatest players in the history of the Premier League.

The Argentine forward suffered chest pains and dizziness during Barcelona’s 1-1 draw with Alaves in October 2021.

Consequently, he was ruled out for three months after cardiac tests. But following the diagnosis of a heart condition; he was forced to retire at the age of 33 in December 2021.

Aguero had already won multiple trophies and became a legend at Manchester City, but still had ambitions to fulfil at Barcelona when he joined the Catalans.

3. Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson of Manchester City
Michael Johnson of Manchester City (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images).

Michael Johnson burst onto the scene at Manchester City in 2006/07 with a series of promising performances and spectacular goals. He was destined for the top under Sven-Goran Eriksson.

But his promising career was quickly blighted by injuries and mental health problems from early on.

Injuries to his hamstring, knee and a double hernia brought a halt to his progress. A battle against depression then followed.

He had his contract terminated in 2012 and announced his retirement at just 24 years of age.

Johnson asked to be “left alone to live the rest of my life” after calling it quit.

In his last 5 seasons at the Etihad, he made just 4 appearances, with an ill-fated loan at Leicester in 2012 towards the end.

Michael Johnson retired from football to move out of the spotlight, and has been largely successful in remaining anonymous.

4. Emmanuel Petit

Emmanuel Petit - 15 top footballers that were forced to retire early
Emmanuel Petit celebrates after France’s victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final (Credit: Clive Brunskill /Allsport).

Emmanuel Petit played as a midfielder for the likes of Barcelona, Monaco, Arsenal and Chelsea.

He also represented France at two FIFA World Cups and two UEFA European Championships.

He scored the third goal in France’s 3-0 victory over Brazil in the 1998 FIFA World Cup Final and was also a member of the French squad that won UEFA Euro 2000.

But Petit was forced to hang his boots in 2004 due to persistent knee injuries.

5. Just Fontaine

Just Fontaine
Just Fontaine in 1959 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images).

Just Fontaine is best known for scoring the most goals in a single edition of the FIFA World Cup: with 13 goals in just 6 matches in 1958.

In 1962, he was forced to retire early (28 years and 11 months old) because of a recurring injury. Just one month short of his 29th birthday.

6. Marco Van Basten

Marco Van Basten
1992. Marco Van Basten of AC Milan. (Photo by Alessandro Sabattini/Getty Images).

Marco van Basten is widely considered as one of the best Dutch players of all time and one of the greatest players in the history of football.

He achieved many big things in his career and was known for his lethal goal-scoring ability, which saw him score more than 300 goals for club and country.

But he had his career sadly cut short due to some awful ankle injuries. The striker played his last match in 1993, at the age of 28.

Van Basten still looked very promising at that age and if injuries hadn’t hampered his career, he could have played at the top for more years.

7. Sebastian Deisler

Sebastian Deisler
Sebastian Deisler in action for Bayern Munich (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images).

Sebastian Deisler was hailed as the future of German football at the turn of the millennium, but he never managed to reach his full potential due to several cruciate ligament ruptures and other major injuries — as well as depression.

Deisler eventually retired from football in January 2007 at the age of 27.

8. Adrian Doherty

Adrian Doherty
(Photo by Manchester United FC/Manchester United via Getty Images).

He might not be a name recognized by many, but Adrian Doherty is considered by some as Manchester United’s “lost star”, with his career being a real tragedy.

He was part of United’s infamous “Class of 92” youth academy which produced fantastic players such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes.

Doherty was known for his extreme pace and stunning ability in the wing, but fate was cruel to him as he suffered a horrible knee injury few days before making his senior debut.

He badly injured his crucial ligaments and couldn’t recover, resulting in the premature end of what could’ve been a legendary career at United.

On the 7th of May 2000, Doherty was found unconscious in a canal in The Hague, Netherlands.

He spent more than a month in a coma in hospital, before dying on the 9th of June — a day before his 27th birthday.

9. Dean Ashton

Dean Ashton.
Dean Ashton in action for West Ham (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images).

Dean Ashton was once considered as one of England’s brightest strikers because of how prolific he was in front of goal

His impressive form at West Ham saw him get a dream call-up to the English national team. And that was when everything started to fall apart for him……..

During an international training session in August 2006, he got tackled by Shaun Wright-Phillips and broke his ankle.

Ashton failed to recover from the ankle injury and in December 2009, he sadly announced his retirement at the tender age of 26.

Just when Dean Ashton started looking like a world-beater, his career came to a cruel end.

10. Enock Mwepu


Having begun his career in his native Zambia, Enock Mwepu signed for Austrian club RB Salzburg in 2017 before moving to Premier League club Brighton & Hove Albion in 2021.

He represented, and later captained, the Zambian national team.

The 24-year-old fell ill while on a flight to link up with his Zambian team-mates on international duty.

On the 10th of October 2022, he was forced to retire early following the discovery of a hereditary heart condition.

The condition is so severe that Mwepu would be extremely likely to suffer a cardiac arrest should he continue playing football.

11. Julian Nagelsmann

Julian Nagelsmann
(Photo by Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images).

Currently the head coach of Bayern Munich and prior to joining Bayern, Julian Nagelsmann managed Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig.

Known for his versatility with formations, maintaining possession, and implementing gegenpress, Nagelsmann is considered to be one of the best young managers in world football.

But the 35-year-old was forced to early retirement as a player after damaging his cartilage due to injuries to his knee and meniscus.

As a result, he ended his playing career at the age of 20.

12. David Busst

David Busst
David Busst of Coventry City lies stricken with a broken leg after clashing with Brian McClair (right) and Denis Irwin of Manchester United during the Premier League match at Old Trafford in Manchester, 8th April 1996. (Photo by Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images).

David Busst was coming up as a promising defender in the Premier League during the 90s and after being a consistently prominent performer for Coventry City, he seemed to be in line for big things.

But during his 50th appearance for the club, Busst suffered what is regarded as one of the most terrible injuries in football history.

During a match against Manchester United, Busst ventured forward during a corner. He collided with two players and his right leg broke instantly in a bad scene that shocked many.

After 26 operations to save his leg, Busst announced his early retirement from football….but was lucky to even walk properly again.

He was 29 years old when he retired.

13. Ryan Mason

Ryan Mason - 15 top footballers that were forced to retire early
Ryan Mason lies injured after a collision with Gary Cahill during a Premier League match between Chelsea and Hull City (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images).

Ryan Mason progressed through the youth ranks at Tottenham and made his first team debut in 2008.

After establishing himself at Spurs, he made a club-record transfer to Hull City in 2016

On the 22nd of January 2017 in a Premier League match against Chelsea, Mason suffered a fractured skull that required surgery after a clash of heads with Gary Cahill.

Mason underwent a successful operation on the head injury, and throughout the rest of 2017 went through a rehabilitation process in an attempt to return to playing.

After the operation he had 14 metal plates in his skull, with 28 screws holding them in place. He also had 45 staples and a six-inch scar across his head.

After a prolonged treatment and on the advice of medical specialists, Ryan Mason was forced to retire from football in February 2018, aged 26.

After his retirement, he was appointed as the interim head coach of Tottenham in 2021, at the age of 29 — becoming the youngest manager in Premier League history.

14. Jack Wilshere

Jack Wilshere
Jack Wilshere’s career was plagued by injuries (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images).

Jack Wilshere came through Arsenal’s youth academy and impressed from an early age.

He made his first-team debut in 2008, becoming Arsenal’s youngest ever league debutant at the age of 16 years. His record has now been broken by Ethan Nwaneri

Injuries ruined Wilshere’s career as he failed to fulfil his huge prospects.

He left Arsenal in 2018 and had short spells at West Ham, Bournemouth and AGF.

Aged just 30, Jack Wilshere announced his retirement from football on the 8th of July 2022.

He is one of the most unlucky footballers in history.

15. Alf-Inge Haaland

Manchester United’s Roy Keane shouts at Manchester City’s Alfie Haaland (on ground) after being shown a red card during a Premiership game (Photo by Phil Noble – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images).

Erling Haaland is currently in the form of his life and has taken the Premier League by storm.

Its not totally surprising though as his father, Alf-Inge Haaland, was a former player who notably played for Premier League sides like Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Manchester City.

Furthermore, Haaland Senior won 34 caps for Norway.

But his career was brought to an unfortunate end due to injuries. Alf-Inge Haaland suffered a terrible injury after an infamous tackle by Manchester United captain, Roy Keane.

Keane kicked him high on the right knee and later confessed that the tackle was a pre-meditated, deliberate act of vengeance against Haaland for the on-field criticism he received from the Norwegian three-and-half years previously!!!

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