Football Features

Nine world-class players who rediscovered their form after suffering an ACL injury

By Oliver Young-Myles

Published: 13:33, 31 October 2023

Unfortunately, injuries are par for the course for professional athletes and footballers are perhaps more susceptible than most to damaging bones and muscles due to the physical, frenetic nature of the game.

More often than not, a footballer will sustain a muscle injury that will take a matter of weeks, rather than months, to fully heal. Occasionally, though, a player can be unfortunate enough to do serious, long-lasting damage to themselves.

And when it comes to bad injuries, there is one in particular that any footballer at any level will wish to avoid like the plague during their playing days; Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) damage in their knees.

But why is it so damaging an injury for a player?

According to sports scientist Dr Rajpal Brar of 3CB Performance: “An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury can be difficult to recover from because it often involves multiple residual deficits such as quadriceps muscle atrophy, changes in movement patterns, and compensation along the rest of the body (which may lead to compensatory injuries).

“Further, the research shows an ACL graft can take upwards of 18 months to 2 years to fully integrate into the body, side to side leg asymmetry (a key indicator of injury risk) exists for an average of 2 years after injury.

The psychological effects present their own challenges, as Dr Brar adds: “And lastly, fear of movement/reinjury (kinesiophobia) is one of the last things to subside which speaks directly to the psychological impact of the injury.”

In bygone days, significant ACL damage often spelt the end of a player’s career. But (thankfully) due to advances made in medical science, many footballers these days are able to make a successful recovery, in their own time.

Here are nine such world-class players who came back better than ever after suffering the dreaded ACL injury, much to the delight of football fans across the globe.

1. Radamel Falcao

Suffering one ACL knee injury during a career in football is sheer rotten luck. Spare a thought for Radamel Falcao, then, who has sustained no fewer than three serious knee injuries (to both left and right) during his career.

Falcao first injured his right knee while playing for River Plate in a game against San Lorenzo in November 2005 and then exacerbated the problem when he attempted to return a couple of months later, eventually missing 10 months of action.

The Colombian front-man bounced back emphatically from that setback, becoming one of the most feared centre-forwards in South America and then the world during spells with Porto and Atletico Madrid.

A third knee injury, this time to his left, curtailed his progress at Monaco and two disappointing loan spells with Manchester United and Chelsea suggested his career at the top was over.

Since then, though, he has been back somewhere near his best, spearheading Monaco’s Ligue 1 title triumph in 2016/17 with a squad-high 21 goals in 29 appearances before making the move to Turkey, where he held a decent scoring record for Galatasaray. Falcao then returned to Spain with Rayo Vallecano and had a fantastic start but, now 37, has tailed off slightly.

2. Alan Shearer

Another brilliant No.9 who suffered the injury of all injuries was Alan Shearer, who snapped his right ACL during his debut season at Blackburn Rovers after joining for a then-English transfer record £3.6m from Southampton.

Shearer made a remarkable recovery, however, by scoring 31 goals in only 40 matches the following season. This form earned him the Football Writers’ Player of the Year award and helped to establish his club as one of England’s best.

A few years later, Shearer suffered a serious ankle ligament injury while playing for Newcastle United, but despite the two lengthy setbacks, he remains by far the most prolific goalscorer in Premier League history with 260 goals to his name. Harry Kane looked to be pushing him close, but has put his chase on pause after leaving Tottenham for Bayern Munich.

3. Alessandro Del Piero

Similarly to Falcao, Alessandro Del Piero was cut down by his own ACL injury right at the peak of his powers in 1998, at a time when he was widely considered to be one of the world’s best attackers.

The previous season, Del Piero had struck 32 goals in 47 matches to help Juventus lift the Serie A title as well as finish runners-up in the Champions League and he was badly missed by his side during his year on the sidelines.

Upon his eventual return, Del Piero was a less pacy and direct player, but he adapted impressively to playing in a deeper forward role, spending a further 13 seasons in the Old Lady’s first team as well as winning the 2006 World Cup with Italy.

The Italian even ended up playing past his 40th birthday after spells in Australia and India, finally calling time on a fantastic career in 2015.

4. Ruud van Nistelrooy

After netting a remarkable 29 goals in 23 Eredivisie matches for PSV Eindhoven during the 1999-2000 season, Ruud van Nistelrooy was all set to complete a club-record £18.5m move to Manchester United before disaster struck.

Just days before he was set to be unveiled as a Red Devil, Van Nistelrooy ruptured the ACL in his right knee, scuppering his dream move to Old Trafford. The injury kept the prolific Dutchman out of action for a year, but Sir Alex Ferguson was undeterred, landing him for £19m the following summer.

That faith was certainly well placed as Van Nistelrooy scored 150 goals in 219 games for the club, before enjoying similar success at Real Madrid, Hamburg and Malaga.

5. Roberto Baggio

One of the finest players of his generation, as well as a Ballon d’Or winner in 1993, Roberto Baggio (or the Divine Ponytail as he was affectionately known) battled with his brittle knees for virtually the entirety of his career.

When Baggio was just 18 and playing for Vicenza, he ruptured the ACL in his right knee as well as tearing his meniscus. Such was the severity of the twin-injury, there were fears that his career was over before it had even really begun.

Fiorentina signed him despite the injury shortly after his making his debut nearly a year later, he again suffered knee ligament damage, before doing so again in the twilight years of his career while at Empoli.

Throughout his career, Baggio suffered badly from injuries, yet he still played for the likes of Juventus, AC Milan and Internazionale as well as making 56 appearances for the Italian national team.

6. Roy Keane

The heartbeat of Manchester United’s midfield for well over a decade, Roy Keane’s absence for virtually all of the 1997/98 season due to an ACL injury played a pivotal role in the Red Devils relinquishing their Premier League title to Arsenal.

Keane injured himself trying to tackle Leeds United’s midfielder Alf-Inge Haaland and the Norwegian’s subsequent accusation that his opponent had feigned his reaction sparked an acrimonious feud between the two.

Although Keane wasn’t quite the same box-to-box enforcer upon his return, he remained hugely influential to the United side for many years, expertly leading them to numerous trophies, including the 1998/99 treble.

7. Xavi

Once Barcelona’s all-time record appearance holder with 767 games in all competitions (before Lionel Messi overtook him), Xavi regularly played over 50 games a season during his time with Blaugrana, which makes his recovery from an ACL tear in 2006 all the more impressive.

While on the way to becoming a club legend, Xavi suffered a setback during the 2005/06 campaign when he was injured in a challenge with future teammate Edmilson during a match against Villarreal, causing him to miss four months of the season.

Despite being expected to miss the remainder of the campaign and the 2006 World Cup, Xavi was on the bench for Barcelona’s Champions League win against Arsenal and travelled with the Spain squad to Germany.

8. Francesco Totti

With the 2007/08 season drawing to an end, Roma’s inspirational captain Francesco Totti suffered a campaign-ending injury against Livorno when he tore his ACL, ruling him out of the team’s Coppa Italia win a few weeks later.

Totti spent four months injured in total but made a full recovery to become the main man in the side upon his return at the start of the following season.

At the grand old age of 40, Totti made the 2016/17 season his final one as a professional, retiring a Roma legend. The ultimate one-club man.

9. Robert Pires

It speaks to just how good Robert Pires was during the 2001/02 Premier League season that he overshadowed the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira in Arsenal’s all-conquering side.

Pires ended the campaign with a first Premier League winners medal as well as the Football Writers’ award for the Best Player in the division despite his season ending prematurely due to an ACL tear in March.

That injury kept Pires out of the 2002 World Cup (where France embarrassingly crashed out in the group stage) and the Gunners sorely missed him during his seven-month lay-off as their old adversaries Manchester United won the 2002/03 title.