Deaths at Heysel, Hillsborough and Bradford redefined perceptions of the game. After each catastrophe came grief and change, despair and enlightenment, remorse and reform.
And yet the legacy of the single tragedy of young Premier League player, Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed from heart failure during a televised cup tie at Tottenham, may be as great as any of the others.
Until last weekend the image of top football and its all-seater stadia, multi-millionaire players and plutocratic foreign owners was battered among those not instinctively in love with the game.
They spoke of a game stalked by the seven deadly sins with the taboo of racism overshadowing them all.
An England captain faced a criminal charge of racism and yet his overpaid manager resigned as he thought the decision to strip him of the captaincy was wrong.
One of the world's greatest clubs, Liverpool, was derided for its hopelessly ham-fisted comms strategy in dealing with a star player banned for racism.
Yet in its spontaneous reaction to the Muamba collapse the game regained its style and dignity.
A well-equipped stadium instantly provided the medical support to give the player the best chance of life. Referee, manager and players showed life and death were far more important than the game, which was called off.
Sensitive TV crews showed viewers the horrified reaction of fans and players to events while eschewing temptations to show the player in extremis on the pitch.
The support of players and fans of all ethnicities and all clubs provided more eloquent testimony than any courtroom pleadings could against allegations of racism or tribalism. The football family, a concept previously ridiculed as a commercial gimmick, stood together.
A great manager once said football wasn't a matter of life and death: it was more important than that. In getting its priorities right last weekend the game, for all its faults, showed itself fit for the modern world.
Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.