The stage is FC Barcelona’s famous Camp Nou stadium. The scoreline? 1-0, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that no-one cared. The reason for this lack of interest? One of the divo’s clothed in red and blue is prostrated pitchside, tears streaming down his youthful face. The moment is frozen in time. Thousands of fans hold their hearts in their hands. A legendary Dutch player, now FC Barcelona manager, looks down at the ground. After just thirty-five minutes of a Champions’ League 2nd leg tie, suddenly Europe’s premier club competition doesn’t seem so important any more. As Nietzsche once wrote, “God is dead”; and in this case, Lionel Messi lies injured yet again.
The injury to the biceps femoris sustained by Lionel Messi on Tuesday evening will stop the Argentine wizard from playing for a minimum of six weeks. Whilst the news has come as quite a blow to all those associated with the club, few can genuinely claim to have been shocked by the night’s events. The diminutive Argentine has already suffered a number of such injuries in his short but eventful career, and the continued saga of Lionel’s instep has left many experts wondering whether there mightn’t be some murky monster hidden beneath the surface of the official medical report, some defect that will plague Diego II for the rest of his career. In this article I’d like to try to get to the bottom of the circumstances that could well rob world football of one of its most worshipped princes before he has time to don the crown or settle on the throne. In the words of Enrique Vaquerizo,
“La ansiosa búsqueda de nuevos genios con los que seguir haciendo girar la rueda de la información deportiva, convierte a jugadores en mitos antes de tener la oportunidad de demostrarlo en el campo”
“The desperate search for new geniuses with which to keep the wheel of sports reporting spinning, turns players into myths before they have had a chance to demonstrate it on the pitch”
Since exploding onto the world football scene three years ago with his spellbinding performances in the Champions League, Lionel Messi has suffered no fewer than seven significant muscle injuries, which have kept him out of action for a grand total of 246 days.
On the 5th of February 2006, Messi pulls up in a crucial match against then high-flying Atlético Madrid, with an elongation of his right biceps femoris causing him to miss eighteen days of matches and training, including an important encounter against Valencia. Having surmounted this hindrance, Messi finds himself immobilized just a couple of weeks into his comeback. Jostling for position with William Gallas in Barça’s Champions’ League knockout tie against Chelsea, Messi feels a sharp pain in his right leg, but tries not to think the worse. He had been eagerly anticipating the match, desperate to show Chelsea that the accusations of theatricality made against him during the first leg are wholly unfounded. He says nothing to the bench, and keeps on running, pursuing fellow injury-prone starlet Arjen Robben up the pitch, before suddenly falling to floor. The same performance. The same anxious look, the same salty tears dripping from his eyes, and the same muscle, although a significantly worse outcome: the right biceps femoris was this time ruptured, along with Messi’s heart, and Messi trudges off the pitch before receiving a fatherly hug from his manager. Mr Rijkaard says that the relapse is due to Messi’s unbridled desire to get back on the pitch even when he’s not fully ready. After two months on the sidelines recuperating, disaster strikes. A relapse of the same injury, and Lionel Messi is ruled out of FC Barcelona’s biggest match in several years: the 2006 Champions League final against Arsenal, a match they would win 2-1. Weeks later, with still no improvement to show for his efforts, Messi is told that he won’t be able to play in the opening match of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and El Pulga never makes quite the impact he might’ve done at the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.
Just a month into the following season, Messi is wounded once more, although thankfully the injury, sustained in training, is not a direct repeat of earlier models, and the Argentine gets away with just a fortnight off for a sprained ligament in his right knee. After reappearing on the scene, Messi plays for 90 minutes in games against Chelsea — banishing the nightmares of his last fixture against the Blues, despite the 1-0 loss — and the Real Madrid, showing no signs of discomfort, although his performances are disappointing and Barça fail to score for two successive games for the first time in three years. A knock picked up in training forces Messi to sit out Barça’s 3-0 win over Recre, a game which saw los culés return to form, according to Rijkaard. 90 minutes are completed in the return match against Chelsea, with Barça drawing 2-2 thanks to goals from Deco and Gudjohnsen, but Messi’s input is minimal.
A low-key run-out away in A Coruña, where Ronaldinho’s penalty and Iniesta’s immense performance from the subs bench help Barça come away with a draw, is followed by a rest midweek as Barcelona dispatch Badalona in the Copa del Rey with consummate ease. Fully rested for the crunch match against Champions League hopefuls Real Zaragoza? You betcha. Or not. Catastrophe strikes once more, as the injury that has taken the scalps of the likes of Rooney and Beckham, the break of the fifth metatarsal, takes Messi under its spell. The wizard is sidelined for three months, with the only consolation coming in the fact that this time it is his left foot, and not his right (where he had suffered all of the other injuries), that it is affected.
Messi is back in February 2007, and is soon in scintillating form. Although powerless to stop Barça crashing out of the Champions League against Liverpool, a truckload of Messi magic against Real Madrid see the Argentine put his injury problems behind him and write his name into footballing folklore. In what is generally considered one of the best “El Clásico” fixtures in recent years, Messi tortures a depleted Real Madrid defence, scoring all three equalizers as Barça peg back Los Merengues for a 3-3 draw. All three goals demonstrate a different part of Messi’s massive talent; the first coming from a supremely collected finish having been sent through one on one by a Deco through ball; the second, a lashed volley into the top of the net after Ronaldinho’s low drive is kept out by Casillas; and the third goal, in second-half stoppage time, an excellent individual effort, with Messi beating two defenders before angling the ball expertly into the bottom right hand corner to send the Camp Nou into raptures.
The months that follow are to be the most productive of Messi’s short career so far. Injury-free and keen to make up for lost time, Messi scored an excellent 11 league goals in 13 games to take his tally to 14 league goals in a season in which he had missed almost 4 months of playing time. Messi also completes his transformation into Diego II by replicating Maradona’s two most famous goals. In a game against Getafe in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey, Messi ran about 62 metres and beat six opposition players before scoring from almost exactly the same position as Maradona had put the seal on his “Goal of the century” against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. As if to fuel the comparisons, Messi proceeded to run towards the corner-flag as his idol had done in Mexico 21 years before. Messi compounded the hype by going on to score a crucial equalizer against city rivals Espanyol using his hand, thus completing the reincarnation of Maradona’s most iconic moments on the football pitch.
A free run of games in this summer’s Copa América had Messi and his fans across the world believing that, his injury problems behind him, this season would be the one in which his status as the world’s best player was consolidated. And for a while, it looked like this might be the case. Despite suffering a minor spasm in his isquiotibial muscle (the muscles at the back of the calf, next to the femoris) on the 11th of September, tragedy does not strike, Messi misses one sole week due to the injury, and proceeds to go on a scoring run to help Barça keep pace with Real Madrid at the top of the league. However, in mid-December, the unthinkable happens. In the middle of Barça’s 3-0 destruction of Valencia at the Mestalla, Messi again pulls up, with no other plays in a two metre radius. The omens do not look good. And the medical tests are there to confirm the worst: the biceps femoris, this time of his left leg, are ruptured, forcing Messi to sit out a month’s worth of action, including the crunch match at home to Real Madrid the following week, a game in which a melancholic Barça are outplayed and lose 1-0.
Messi’s return to the Barcelona team prompts in an upturn in their form, and his performances and goals — including two at Celtic Park in the Champions League, and the goal to regain the lead for Barça against Levante — help cut Real Madrid’s lead at the top of La Liga to just two points, albeit briefly. Rested by Frank Rijkaard in last Sunday’s 4-2 defeat at Atlético Madrid, a decision for which the Dutchman was roundly and peremptorily derided, there was little question of Messi being left out again at home to Celtic, and the rest is history: a tear of the same biceps femoral, and Barça without their talisman for a minimum of 6 weeks.
Why so many injuries? Possible causes
The case of Lionel Messi is interesting for many reasons. What is notable about all seven of his injuries is that not a single one of them has come as a direct result of a heavy challenge from an opposition player — thus the Wenger/Ferguson tirades about their players being the most fouled and consequently the most susceptible to injury cannot be applied with any truth to Messi, in spite of the desire to do so on the part of some desperate Barcelona fans, who have pointed to the “shock tactics” of Schuster and co. when faced with Messi as evidence for their complicity in his injuries.
First off, it is worth noting that FC Barcelona have suffered a massive number of muscular injuries over the last few years, with more than half of the squad having sat out games due to this type of problem, including Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Ronaldinho, Touré Yayá, Gianluca Zambrotta, Carles Puyol, Sylvinho and Deco. This is enough to suggest that something is not right with the treatment players are receiving at the club: either there is some problem with the warm-up, or the players are not being asked to do the requisite muscle-building work in the gyms. Barça teams over the last two years have tired noticeably after the 60th minute, leaving question marks over the physical preparation offered up by Frank Rijkaard’s coaching team, and the training regime tailored to Messi’s physical needs by FCB’s coaches has clearly failed in its objectives, leaving Txiki BeguiristaÃn to state after Tuesday’s match that perhaps Messi’s every activity would have to be supervised by the FCB hierarchy.
However, it is my belief that a number of specific factors related to the player have contributed to Messi’s chequered injury record over the last three years. The first and second of these can be directly linked: the fact that Messi demands too much from himself, and the pressure on the part of Barça fans, whose expectations will not allow their favourite son to sit out as many games as might be required to regain full fitness. Messi’s footballing style is characterized by his immense speed and acceleration, and he often operates in short bursts, stopping and starting constantly and suddenly and twisting and turning in several directions, at varying speeds. According to some commentators, Messi’s electric and explosive style on the pitch demands too much from his body, and this problem is compounded by the fact that the crack himself is loathe to admit to an injury, a sign of immaturity that is quite understandable, but can cause great amounts of damage, as indeed it did for Messi in the game against Chelsea.
As the Argentinian nacional team doctor, Dr Homero de Agostino says, in a description that will sound familiar to fans of Wayne Rooney, who is another who suffers from regular injury setbacks, “what he asks of himself is too much […] he wants to kick every ball, to be involved in every move, to score every goal […] if when running one does more than one really can, at some point the muscle is fatigued, coordination between the contraction and relaxation of the muscle is offset by a millisecond, and an injury occurs”.
What’s more, for Barcelona fans Messi’s status as the “Messiah” means that he is virtually impossible to drop from the team, as we can see from the barracking received by Rijkaard when Messi was rested against Atlético, in spite of the declaration on the part of Frank Rijkaard’s assistant Johan Neeskens, before kick-off, that Messi’s muscle was slightly overburdened. All of this has led to Puyol’s blaming Messi’s injury on the insatiable Barcelona media, and although he would later retract the statement, it does to a certain extent ring true.
Whilst Rijkaard should of course be censured if he was guilty of listening to the media instead of to the requisite medical bulletins, the pressure applied by Barcelona’s top newspapers on the team as a whole, and on the figure of Messi himself, leaves player and club in an impossible position in which Messi’s absence will forever be used as a weapon against the coaching team, whilst the media recriminate Rijkaard and his henchmen every time Messi is injured due to not being used properly (those at El Mundo Deportivo, for example, first lampooned Rijkaard for having left Messi out of the startling line-up against Atlético, then complained a day later because Messi had participated quite actively in a training game at La MasÃa, and then proceeded to contradict themselves by having a go at Rijkaard for not leaving Messi on the bench against Celtic!). Doctor Ramón Balius, a specialist on muscular injuries and a member of the Barça team has explained that the great majority of modern-day footballers play under excessive train, and that from a medical point of view, a squad of 50 players would be necessary in order to permit players to avoid their muscles being overworked.
A series of other theories related to Messi’s body have been advanced. First off, Messi’s physical constitution is apparently different from that of his peers; his musculature has been said by his doctors to have a quite distinct shape from that of other footballers, whilst the response of his body to treatment and to sudden movements is inevitably conditioned by this singularity. However, talk of Messi having an especially weak musculature has been discounted by medical experts, such as the Argentinian national team’s doctor, who maintains that the exhaustive biomechanical tests carried out on the 20-year old have revealed no exceptional qualities about his muscular composition.
A further theory suggests that the hormones medical staff in Argentina injected into Messi’s body between the ages of 10 and 14, paid for by FC Barcelona in order to facilitate his muscle growth, may be at the root of his injury nightmare. Proponents of this hypothesis suggest that his physical development as a child was “unnatural” and that as a consequence, whilst the muscle contains the same surface properties as that of other footballers, it fails to react in the same way or hold up under the same amounts of physical pressure. Despite this premise being again quashed by the medical teams of FC Barcelona and the Argentinian national team, as well as by Diego Schwarsztein, the doctor who treated La Pulga back in Rosario, it remains a tempting and potentially elucidatory one.
A Messi future — bad tidings we bring
Lionel Messi is not the only player to have suffered from chronic injury problems throughout his career, and we must only look at the likes Milan striker Ronaldo to understand the demoralizing effect of constant injuries on a player’s desire and ability to keep going. Whilst Messi has yet to suffer an injury of the same severity, his struggle to get fit only to suddenly relapse is reminiscent of the toothy Brazilian, as well as of another great striker, also of A.C. Milan: Marco Van Basten, who, after a series of troublesome ankle problems, was forced to retire at the tender age of just 28. All of the signs point to Messi suffering similar problems.
Whilst I hope that such a prognosis is proven wrong, it is my hope that Barça and world football fans alike, so quick to proclaim Messi the “king”, will stop pressuring El Pulga to play in every game, will respect his need to take time to recover from even minor knocks — as Juande Ramos has had to do with Ledley King — and give him time to let the crown settle, before it falls off for good.