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In World Cup year, players work with creaky undercarriages

National squads in limbo as footballing stars fall victim to wear and tear of long season.

By: New York Times | London |
April 8, 2014 2:34:03 am

By: Rob Hughes

It is the best and the worst of times in a young man’s career. Jay Rodriguez has been in the form of his life over the past month. He was scoring goal after goal for Southampton, and the England team manager, Roy Hodgson, was more often than not watching him.

Up until Saturday, it was generally reckoned that Rodriguez — along with his Saints teammates Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert and possibly the fullback Luke Shaw — were playing their way into the England squad for the World Cup.

The form of his life at the right time for the tournament of his life.

Midway through the first half, Rodriguez reached with his left foot almost at shoulder height to pluck a ball out of the air. He controlled it skillfully, but at that moment his standing foot gave way. There was no opponent other than gravity and the weight of his own 6-foot-1 body.

But from his shriek of pain, and from the way he collapsed holding the knee joint, everyone feared the worst. In the crowd, the TV cameras picked out the worried face of Hodgson.

No one knows, or is likely to know, the extent of the injury until the initial swelling subsides. The fear is that Rodriguez has damaged or ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament.

The national squad for the World Cup is due to be named on May 23. Rodriguez is in limbo until a specialist can scan the injury, and the fear might now be worse than any pain.

England has already lost Theo Walcott to a knee injury. Colombia is waiting on its star, Radamel Falcao, who had surgery in January.

The Roma and Netherlands midfielder Kevin Strootman had knee ligament surgery last month, and Belgium has lost its striker, Christian Benteke, who tore his left Achilles’ tendon during training with Aston Villa on Thursday.

Vincent Kompany, the captain of Manchester City and a countryman of Benteke, had tweeted to his friend last week: “Wishing you all the strength you need. Courage Fréro.”

Kompany broadcast a tribute to Benteke on BBC on Saturday night, saying that Belgium could not have progressed so impressively toward World Cup qualification without his goals. And Kompany, a man of intelligent mind and tough, aggressive defensive quality, pointed out that while soccer is a body-contact sport, it is not always the rough tackles that endanger the livelihood of players.

Indeed not. Cristiano Ronaldo missed Real Madrid’s Spanish league match on Saturday because of knee strain. Lionel Messi lost months of Barcelona’s season due to persistent hamstring injuries, and the same problem has dogged Manchester City’s Sergio Agüero.

The players are trapped, to some extent, by their own talents. The better they are, the more demands are placed upon them. Something has to give, and in a sport that prides itself on being at the cutting edge of medical care, that something all too often is the undercarriage of the best players. There will not now be a world-class player who does not have this on his mind.

They are being watched and assessed on their current form by the national team managers — for example Luiz Felipe Scolari was in Spain looking out for his La Liga contingent in the Champions League last week, and in London to check up on David Luiz, Willian, Ramires and Oscar who are all employed by Chelsea. Those players are coming to the crux of European season, and, if they survive the strains of that, will have barely three weeks to change gear, change climate, and change style down in Brazil, where the World Cup begins in June.


Kompany is right to stress that it isn’t necessarily the body contact that harms players. But sometimes, it is exactly that.

Before the last World Cup in South Africa, Michel D’Hooghe, who has long headed FIFA’s medical committee, put together a compilation of ferocious tackles that put the careers of fellow professionals at risk. Yet still, at the showpiece final in Johannesburg, the English referee Howard Webb was lenient in allowing the Dutch, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong to kick Spain’s players.

One tackle, from de Jong into the ribs of Xabi Alonso, was so shocking that it resembled a kung fu kick. De Jong was admonished, but remained on the field. With so much strain on players, it seems incredible that the top pros might recklessly disregard the safety of opponents. And so very sad when players break under the stress of a game given access to the best of modern medicine, but not always the best practice in terms of prevention.

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