Medical reports about Ronaldo
may be as common as clouds on an English weather map yet in a FIFA World Cup™
year there is no questioning their extra significance.
When the Brazil striker limped out of Real Madrid's match against Villarreal on
Sunday with a recurrence of a calf injury, interest in his condition was not
confined to fans of Madrid and the Seleção. Lovers of football everywhere could
have been forgiven for wondering what condition he will be in come May when
Carlos Alberto Parreira names his 23 for Germany.
Ronaldo – who stands just two goals shy of equalling Gerd Muller's record for
most FIFA World Cup goals - struggled with ankle ligament problems for much of
the season's first half and now faces another month on the sidelines. Still,
these problems pale beside the career-threatening injuries he came back from
before finding redemption in Korea/Japan four years ago – and also beside the
fitness worries facing other players with big dreams of what June may bring.
Just consider his fellow Brazil striker Ricardo Oliveira, who tore both the
cruciate ligament and external ligament in his right knee in November. Unless he
recovers unexpectedly fast, Oliveira faces joining the long list of players who
have missed out on FIFA World Cups – including compatriot Emerson, Frenchman
Robert Pires and Germany’s Jens Nowotny last time out.
The prospect of the opening Group B match between England and Paraguay on 10
June is no doubt helping focus the minds of two other strikers, Michael Owen and
Roque Santa Cruz. In Owen's case, he became the latest England player afflicted
by the curse of the metatarsal when he fractured a bone in his foot playing for
Newcastle United against Tottenham on New Year's Eve.
A few years ago the mention of the word 'metatarsal' would have earned a blank
look from your average England fan but not any more – not after 2002 when David
Beckham almost missed out on Korea/Japan and Gary Neville did sit out the finals
because of such fractures. Having had a pin inserted in his foot, however, Owen
expects to "see at least a month of the Premiership season" and should be fit
and fresh for Germany.
A spring return is also expected for Santa Cruz, albeit after his considerably
longer rehabilitation following cruciate ligament surgery in mid-November. He
has been recovering at home in Paraguay but is scheduled to return to his German
club Bayern Munich this month. In a similar situation is Czech Republic target
man Jan Koller who suffered a cruciate injury in late September. "I think by the
end of May I will be ready for the World Cup," he declared recently.
Another player with the same injury may not be so fortunate. Spain playmaker
Xavi could run out of time in his race to return from ruptured ligaments he
sustained on the Barcelona training ground at the start of December. The
expectation in Spain is that captain Raul Gonzalez will be back, however,
despite sustaining a serious knee injury just a fortnight earlier. Raul
partially tore the cruciate ligament and damaged the cartilage in his left knee
playing for Real Madrid against Barcelona, but opted to avoid surgery to shorten
the required rehabilitation time.
If Spain coach Luis Aragones is worried then his Argentine counterpart Jose
Pekerman has arguably greater concerns. Two of his first-choice back four are
presently sidelined and the prognosis is mixed. Central defender Roberto Ayala
said this week he would be "available for selection in March" after undergoing
surgery on a twisted knee but left-back Gabriel Heinze's chances of recovering
from a cruciate ligament problem are negligible according to his manager at
Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson.
"I don't think he will be available until next season," said Ferguson in
December. Pekerman himself has promised to keep places open for both Heinze and
Corinthians-based midfielder Javier Mascherano, who is presently out of action
with a stress fracture of the foot. "We want to take them with us," he said.
A serious injury in a FIFA World Cup year is, in the words of the newly
sidelined USA midfielder Claudio Reyna, "a player's worse nightmare".
Fortunately for Reyna he should be back within two months after his recent
surgery on a broken ankle. Of course, after the hard work of regaining fitness,
Reyna and Co must then rediscover their form and confidence – and this is the
task currently facing Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Buffon made his second appearance of the season in an Italian Cup tie against
Fiorentina on Tuesday night, having missed all but one Juventus game before
Christmas due to a serious shoulder injury suffered in pre-season. As a key
player for Marcello Lippi's Azzurri, his progress in the coming weeks will be
monitored closely – but then, as Ronaldo could vouch, he will not be the only