In the world of professional football, where the spotlight shines brightest on the pitch, the news of a player being diagnosed with cancer sends shockwaves through the entire sporting community.
Yet, amidst the darkness of such news, there are stories that provide hope and inspiration. From Jonas Gutierrez’s courageous battle with testicular cancer to Stiliyan Petrov’s inspiring comeback from acute leukemia, each story is a testament to those athletes.
Inspired by the recent journey of Sebastian Haller, who bravely battled cancer, reclaimed his place on the pitch and scored the winner for Ivory Coast at AFCON, this feature shines a spotlight on footballers who have faced similar challenges.
From the depths of diagnosis to the heights of recovery and return, Mail Sport have rounded up the individual that exemplify courage, perseverance, and the unwavering determination to defy the odds.
Sebastien Haller scored in the winner for Ivory Coast in Sunday’s Africa Cup of Nations final
But only 18 months ago he was in a hospital bed after being diagnosed with testicular cancer
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Bournemouth winger David Brooks was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer that affects the white blood cells, in October 2021. But after undergoing 18 months of treatment for the disease, Brooks was given the all clear in May 2022.
He said: ‘It has been a few months since my last update and in that time I have thankfully completed my cancer treatment. I would like to say a huge thank you to all of the incredible medical staff for their amazing work and support throughout the process.
‘Last week I met with my specialist having reviewed my final test results. I am delighted to say the treatment was successful and I can now say that I have been given the all clear and am now cancer free.
‘Those words feel incredible to say and I am so thankful for all your messages and good wishes, these really helped me through the tough times.’
Brooks was named in Gary O’Neil’s starting XI for the first time in 598 days when Bournemouth faced Manchester United in May 2023. He had made four appearances off the bench since March but said he was beyond excited to start a game.
Bournemouth winger David Brooks was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin lymphoma, a rare form of blood cancer that affects the white blood cells, in October 2021
Jonas Gutierrez was diagnosed with cancer in October 2013 and underwent surgery in December. The midfielder was given the all-clear after a year and returned to action to help Newcastle avoid relegation.
However, Gutierrez was frustrated with how his cancer diagnosis was handled. He claimed he was forced to pay for his treatment and said he was told by the former Newcastle manager, Alan Pardew, that he would no longer feature in ‘Newcastle’s plans’.
Gutierrez, who had been at the forefront of the Newcastle squad, said he was shocked at the ‘sudden change of heart’ and that the situation caused him a lot of ‘distress’.
He said: ‘I believe that the reason for this was due to my cancer diagnosis and very recent operation to remove the tumour, as I had clearly been a crucial part of Newcastle’s first team lineup to this point.
‘I think they feared that my illness would mean that I could no longer play at the highest level and they considered me to be a liability rather than an asset to the club.
‘I got the impression that they thought I couldn’t be the same player again after such an illness or that I would be bound to have lingering effects other episodes of illness off the back of it. This caused me a lot of distress given my hard work and commitment for the club in the preceding five and half years.’
As a result, Gutierrez launched a £2million disability discrimination claim against the club, saying they dropped him from the team because of his battle with cancer.
Newcaslte fan favour Jonas Gutierrez was given the all-clear from cancer a year after diagnosis
Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2012. He spent five years building himself back up after undergoing 13 months of treatment.
Speaking about his diagnosis, Petrov said: ‘It came from nowhere. My football, my dreams, all of it taken away from me. Everything I had planned for, everything that I thought would happen, everything that I wanted to achieve disappeared in a single second.
‘I had to put everything on the side. And what I had to do was battle for my life. My battle was to survive. A battle to still be a human being, still be a father, still be a husband, still be somebody who wants to achieve more after the football. But I could not.’
Petrov did try to return to football and even looked for a new deal with Aston Villa. However, it never came off and he decided to hang up his boots despite being touted for a return in 2016.
Stiliyan Petrov was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2012. He spent five years building himself back up after undergoing 13 months of treatment
Arjen Robben was just 20-years-old when he found a lump on the his left testicle. The Dutch winger underwent surgery to remove the unwanted lump and returned to football soon after.
Speaking about his diagnosis after recovering from cancer, Robben said: ‘I was very scared – it was a very difficult time. I found a little lump and went to the doctor. He told me I needed an operation. I then had to wait for the results and I didn’t know if it was going to be good or bad news.
‘The waiting was terrible for a few days. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. It was a horrible wait, then I heard the news was good and it was a massive relief.
‘At that time football was no longer important – the most important thing is to be healthy and for your family to be healthy. Football is my life but my family’s health is the most important thing in the world.’
Arjen Robben was just 20 when he found a lump on the his left testicle. The Dutch winger underwent surgery to remove the unwanted lump and returned to football soon after
Abidal’s remarkable story began in March 2011. He was 31 and in his fourth season as a powerful defender for Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona when he went to hospital for routine medical tests.
Abidal told Mail Sport: ‘I felt in good health. My fitness scores were high. I’d always looked after my body. When they told me I had a tumour in my liver, I got a huge shock.
He went on to add: ‘But this can happen to anyone, whatever your age, whatever your job. You can have all the money in the world but nothing prepares you for cancer.’
Abidal had an operation and, incredibly, returned to the first-team fold within six weeks. Only 71 days had passed since the operation when ‘Abi’ played his first 90 minutes – in the 3-1 victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final at Wembley.
‘That game was an obsession for me. I was determined to get myself right. Pep was amazing, sending me messages saying, “Keep going, we are all counting on you to be there”.’
Eric Abidal (left) was 31 and in his fourth season as a powerful defender for Pep Guardiola ‘s Barcelona when he went to hospital for routine medical tests before being diagnosed
Former Union Berlin defender Timo Baumgartl was diagnosed with cancer in May 2022 after a tumour was found during a routine check-up.
When asked about his diagnosis, Baumgartl said: ‘When you’re given the cancer diagnosis you’re forced to think about what it would be like if you’re no longer around.’
Thankfully, Baumgartl recovered from cancer after undergoing surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy. He also returned to football five months later – starting Union Berlin’s clash with Wolfsburg (which they ended up winning 2-0 to put them top of the table).
Baumgartl was overcome with emotion after the final whistle and said the following in his post-match interview: ‘This is exactly what I dreamed about the whole time during my chemotherapy: to come back into the starting line-up and to win.’
Timo Baumgartl (left) was diagnosed with cancer in May 2022 after a routine check-up
Francesco Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer in June 2013 and underwent treatment to get rid of the disease. However, he found out it had returned in December later that year.
Acerbi continued to battle back against the disease and was given the all clear before going on to make his international debut for Italy in 2014.
‘With everything I went through, I am happy and proud, but I have objectives and when I’ve reached them I will be satisfied. What are they? I won’t tell,’ Acerbi told Rai Sport after the match.
‘If you want to reach your targets, then you need to work hard, sweat and have that hunger within you. If you don’t have it in you, then it’s impossible to get there.’
Francesco Acerbi was diagnosed with testicular cancer in June 2013 and underwent treatment to get rid of the disease. However, he found out it had returned in December
Borussia Monchengladbach defender Stefan Lainer was diagnosed with lymphoma in July 2023. The 31-year-old, who had made 125 appearances for the German club at the time, needed to stop playing and undergo treatment for the cancer.
However, Lainer – who was ever-present in his first two seasons in Germany after completing a move from Austrian top-flight outfit Red Bull Salzburg in 2019 – did say the cancer had been detected ‘extremely early’ and that it was treatable with medication.
Thankfully, Lainer made a full recovery and returned to training just over two months ago – with the Bundesliga giants releasing the following statement.
‘Stefan Lainer is set to return to training for Borussia Monchengladbach. The right-back, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in July, has successfully completed the therapy that he had been undertaking over the past few months. A recent final examination showed that therapy had been successful for Lainer and that he had been cured of lymphoma.’
While Lainer added: ‘I’m thrilled that I can once again fully concentrate on football and train together with the team. The last weeks and months were a big challenge. I’m very thankful to have had so much support from my family, my friends, the club and the fans during this period.
‘All this gave me strength. In particular, I would like to thank my wife and Dr. Sellmann, who were the most important sources of support during this time.’
Borussia Monchengladbach defender Stefan Lainer was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2023
Henri Lansbury was diagnosed with testicular cancer during his time at Nottingham Forest.
Speaking on Sky Sports, Lansbury said: ‘I was in the shower after training one day and was obviously having a feel as I was washing myself and I felt a lump. It was a little pea-sized lump.
‘Over time I thought it would go away but a couple months passed and it was still there. We broke up for the summer, about to go on holiday… but it was eating me away for a few months.
‘Obviously having it, not telling anyone and just trying to deal with it myself. And it came to the point where I thought I had to see someone and someone had to help me out.
‘First of all, I just went down to the local hospital to see if I could get it checked out. But they said the lead time was a few weeks. Obviously, going on holiday, I didn’t want to go away with it.
‘So I had to phone the club and ask for help. They put me in contact with someone to go get it checked out. Had a scan there and he said ‘alright we’ll give you your results in a bit’.
‘As I’ve left to get in my car, the doctor from Nottingham Forest has called me and said: ‘Go and pack a bag. You’re going back in for the operation tonight. It was a bit fast but glad to get it out’.
Henri Lansbury was diagnosed with testicular cancer during his time at Nottingham Forest
Linda Caicedo started feeling pain in her abdomen during the Covid-19 pandemic. After several tests, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At just 15-years-old, Caicedo underwent surgery to remove a tumour and one of her ovaries.
The surgery was successful and Caicedo returned to training with her club Deportivo Cali just days after her final round of chemotherapy. She went on to thrive at club level before being handed her international just three years after her diagnosis.
The teenage star even scored on her debut to help Colombia secure a 2-0 win over South Korea in their Women’s World Cup match in Sydney.
Linda Caicedo started feeling pain in her abdomen during the Covid-19 pandemic. After several tests, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer
‘At the time, I didn’t think I could play professionally again because of all the treatments and surgeries I had to go through,’ Caicedo told FIFA. ‘Mentally, it was a very difficult moment in my life.’
‘I’m forever grateful that it happened when I was very young. I was able to recover, I also had my family’s support and I feel very good now. What happened made me grow. I feel thankful and happy to be here.’