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Cheick Tioté seemed fighting fit when he turned up for training at Beijing Enterprises last Monday. But little did the Côte d’Ivoire international and former Newcastle United player – who made the move from England to China a few months ago – know the fate that awaited him.

The Soldier – as he was affectionately known – suffered a heart attack in training. And this time around, it was an unpredictable opponent he could not defeat.

Tioté passed away later that day at just 30 years of age. The news spread like wildfire online – so quickly in fact that many thought it was tasteless rumour until his agent, Emanuelle Paladino, confirmed the news.

Circumstances of his death

Côte d’Ivoire’s Ambassador to China, Adama Dosso, appeared on Ivorian state television on Monday evening to confirm the circumstances around the sudden death of the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations winner: “Cheick Ismaël Tioté woke up at 2 a.m. this morning to have breakfast. As a Muslim, this was perfectly normal in the month of Ramadan. He said his prayers then headed off to the training complex, where he warmed up with his team-mates. Once the warm-up was over, the coach split the players into two groups. During the group session, Tioté collapsed on the pitch. The club doctor came to his aid and he was then taken to hospital. Sadly, he did not make it.”

Taken in his prime

Cheick Tioté – with his poor upbringing and nerves of steel – was part of the Côte d’Ivoire national team’s golden era. He burst onto the scene in 2009 during a testimonial match against Rigobert Song’s Cameroon to raise money for the victims of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium disaster on 29 March that same year, going on to forge a long career as a mainstay of the national team. In 2015, injury forced him to pull out part-way through the Africa Cup of Nations – a familiar theme that had blighted his early club career, first at FC Bibo and later at Anderlecht in Belgium, then at Roda JC and FC Twente in the Netherlands.

But Tioté made a name for himself at Newcastle United, catching the eye of some of Europe’s top clubs including Chelsea and Manchester City. He was a talented player with a lion’s heart – taken in his prime. For although his Chinese exile seemed to be the epilogue to a decorated career, the man from Treichville still had plenty to give.

Tributes from the world of sport

The footballing world is in mourning. In Amsterdam, the Côte d’Ivoire national team were deep in shock after the news broke. “We were devastated,” said Roger Dédi, communications officer at the Fédération Ivoirienne de Football (FIF), on Tuesday. “There was nothing anyone could say.”

Tributes came flooding in across social media, too. Yaya Touré, close to tears, tweeted: “My brother, Cheick. I can’t believe you’re gone. I’ll never forget you.” And again on Twitter, Ivorian legend Didier Drogba said he had “no words” to express how he felt.

Former PSG full-back Siaka Tiéné, meanwhile, posted an emotional tribute: “It’s hit everyone hard. A close friend called me to tell me the news. We’re all heartbroken. On the pitch, Cheick was known as a fearless warrior – someone who gave his all. But off the pitch he was different – endearing, fun-loving and respectful. Thirty is just too young!” Tiéné also revealed that Tioté’s pregnant wife is due to give birth any day now – news that will only make the family’s grief more intense.

The Ivorian football world will, of course, offer whatever support is needed. Tioté’s unexpected death has also sent shock waves to the very top of the Association des Footballeurs Ivoiriens (AFI), with the association posting the following message on its Facebook page: “It is with immense sadness that we learned about the passing of Cheick Tioté – a player who wore his country’s shirt with pride for many years, a winner whose tenacity set an example for young players and who will remain in fans’ hearts always. We are mourning the loss of a champion, a brother and a friend. May he rest in peace. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his wife and family.”

The FIF, meanwhile, paid tribute to a player “who was universally respected for his talent and always gave everything on the pitch”.

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