May 21, 2024



You know it is bad news when a football club uses the word “devastating” to start an official communication. So often it seems official club accounts stick to banalities when making announcements, keeping emotion out of things as much as possible, that when one breaks from that approach it underlines the seriousness of the occasion.

That was the case when Bayern Munich made a public announcement on Wednesday, as they used the word “devastating” to confirm the latest injury to midfielder Thiago Alcantara, a ligament tear that will keep him out “for another lengthy absence.”

In a statement, the club added:

Tuesday brought bad news and a severe setback for FC Bayern: Thiago Alcantara picked up another serious injury in a challenge during training. Due to a scar tissue deficiency the midfielder suffered a second partial tear of a ligament in his right knee. The 23-year-old faces another operation and a long-term lay-off.

The Spain international had already been sidelined since March with a knee injury, one that forced him to miss the World Cup in Brazil. A relapse in the recovery from that problem in August then saw his return date pushed back to October—with the midfielder training alone at the start of the month, before slowly rejoining the first-team squad over the last week.

Judging by the Twitter feed of both player and club it would seem his first full session with the group came on Monday (he had been doing light ball-work since last week). On Tuesday his body betrayed him once again.

“We’re all shocked and saddened by this new injury,” the club’s sporting director, Matthias Sammer, added in a statement. “Thiago was so near to making his comeback. But he knows everyone at FC Bayern is here for him. We’ll do all we can to make sure he gets fit again and helps us to win lots of trophies.”

It is now unlikely we will see Thiago on a football pitch until well into 2015. Exact details of the injury he has sustained are still to come but generally partial MCL tears come with a lay-off of at least six months, and often nearer 10.

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

That is another heartbreaking setback for the player, who only last week was expressing his excitement about finally getting back on the football pitch with his Bayern teammates. Having missed the majority of his first season at the club, the former Barcelona playmaker was surely eager to get the chance to show the Bundesliga exactly what he can do when he is at his peak (and, considering Spain’s recent form, the national team would surely have craved his return too).

Instead he now must come to terms with another gruelling period of rehabilitation, a process that he has already essentially completed once without getting the sweet reward of a return to competitive action. That can take an immense mental toll, compounding the physical issues and making it difficult to ever complete a full recovery.

Publicly at least, it would seem the player is determined to face this adversity head-on.

“What can I say? Obviously, I’m deeply disappointed and upset,” Thiago said. “Why always me? But I won’t give up.”

Many fans will worry that Thiago, for so long identified as one of the most talented young players in world football, will now be denied the opportunity to reach his full potential. The history of this sport, and indeed sport in general, is littered with those who were robbed of their destiny by an untimely injury or run of them. Sebastian Deisler (who, admittedly, had other demons), for example, tore his ACL while at Bayern Munich and was never able to deliver on the vast hype that had been attached to him.

On the other hand, there are the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, who suffered similar injuries at a similar stage in their career but went on to great success.

“Nobody should worry about my fitness,” Van Nistelrooy told the Daily Mail in 2001, after coming back from an anterior cruciate ligament tear. “I feel I am back to my best, exactly the same as I did before my injury. I have shown in eight games that I can be the player I was, if not a better one.”

Months later he moved to Manchester United—where he scored 150 goals in 219 games.

For the vast majority of players, however, there is usually a very slight but noticeable decline in both pace, acceleration and agility after such an injury. Ronaldo was never quite the same player after his various surgeries, while Alan Shearer had to change his style of play considerably after his own period on the sidelines.

The positive news, if any of this can be considered positive for such a gifted player, is that Thiago’s game is not one predicated on the physical gifts he possesses, but rather the intellectual ones; the way he reads the game and how he is able to dictate its rhythms with his graceful touch and eye for the right pass. That innate ability should not be dulled by such a long time on the sidelines (or at least can quickly be sharpened by a return to action), so in theory he should be able to return at somewhere close to his original potential if his surgery and rehabilitation goes well.

He is also young, with the more fearless mindset that will help in attacking a body blow such as this. Not only that but modern surgery has advanced considerably in recent times, improving the rates of recovery from ACL and MCL tears significantly.

Back in 1991, Paul Gascoigne was out for 16 months after damaging his knee with an infamously wild tackle in the FA Cup final. Nowadays the prognosis is much better. In the United States, for example, recovery rates from knee ligament injuries among NFL players are now encouraging.

“NFL players should expect to be back on the field the next season, without a doubt,” as one surgeon told Newsday in 2013. “It’s odd when they’re not. NFL players who tear their ACL, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about with today’s technology.”

Of course, after suffering so many injuries in a row it may take Thiago a while to trust his body again, and that could be the biggest barrier to him resuming where he left off for club and country. Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey has said it took him three years to fully get over the horrific leg-break he suffered in a game back in 2010—he was back to fitness within a year, but the mental scars took much longer to break down.

Admittedly that was in slightly different circumstances, with Ryan Shawcross’s tackle inflicting the gruesome injury. Speaking in February last year, Ramsey said (per the Daily Mail):

It was a really tough thing to go through and I don’t wish it upon anybody.

The determination and the professionalism that you need, all the hours you have to spend in the gym, it’s quite tough. But I’ve got through that. It’s taken me a bit longer than I would’ve liked, but I’m happy now where I am, and hoping to improve and carry on this good form that I’m in.

That injury did take it out of me and hopefully that will only have been a minor hiccup when I look back on my career.

Thiago, his club and his many fans around the world will be hoping that he is eventually able to say the same thing. For now, however, another long and difficult journey back to fitness is just getting started.

“I’ll keep on fighting,” the player continued. “I’ll get fit again. And I will make my comeback at Bayern.”

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