Football Features

Last-minute injuries that changed the course of international football history

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 20:37, 27 July 2022

Just days before they were set to open up their Women’s Euro 2022 campaign, pre-tournament favourites Spain were dealt a major blow when Alexia Putellas tore her ACL during a training session.

La Roja soldiered on without the Ballon d’Or Feminin winner, finishing second in Group B, to set up a quarter-final tie against hosts England. Despite going ahead, Spain would ultimately be eliminated after extra-time. Jorge Vilda’s team performed well but missed that cutting edge Putellas offers (not to mention Jenni Hermoso who was also injured pre-tournament).

One wonders how things would have turned out if the Barcelona star was available. And unfortunately she is not alone in her misfortune. Being ruled out from playing in an international tournament on the eve of its kick-off is something many stars in the past have unfortunately experienced. Here are some notable examples.


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Frank de Boer

National team: Netherlands

Tournament missed: Euro 1996

Dutch football experienced another renaissance in the mid-90s with Ajax establishing themselves as Europe’s untouchables. A key component of Louis van Gaal’s Ajax machine was left-back Frank de Boer, who looked certain to play a key role for the Netherlands at Euro 1996, but the full-back sustained an ankle injury in training just weeks before Oranje‘s first match.

Aside from his on-field excellence, De Boer’s leadership was missed as Guus Hiddink’s men imploded with Edgar Davids infamously sent home for questioning his manager’s authority. A humbling 4-1 group-stage loss at Wembley to hosts England was soon followed by a penalty shootout loss to France in the final eight.

Romario

National team: Brazil

Tournament missed: 1998 World Cup

De Boer would feature at the following 1998 World Cup finals as Oranje put together an impressive run. But it was another penalty shootout nightmare as Brazil reached the final at their expense. There wasn’t a familiar face for Dutch supporters that evening as Romario, who became a household name at PSV Eindhoven, tearfully announced he wouldn’t participate in the France-held tournament.

Having formed the devastating Ro-Ro attack with fellow Brazilian forward Ronaldo, medical exams revealed that Romario had suffered a muscular injury. Try as he might through intensive treatment, Romario couldn’t recover in time and was ruled out for Brazil on the deadline for World Cup squad submissions. In his absence, A Seleção lost the final to hosts France.

Ruud van Nistelrooy

National team: Netherlands

Tournament missed: Euro 2000

Another striker who emerged at PSV is Ruud van Nistelrooy, and the deadly marksman was looking forward to joining Manchester United after representing Oranje at Euro 2000 but he famously sustained a knee injury during a training session. Van Nistelrooy had made his international debut in late 1998 and before the summer of 2000 he’d registered one goal across 10 appearances.

Fortunately, Netherlands boss Frank Rijkaard was blessed with strong alternatives up front, but the Dutch again suffered another semi-final heartache against 10-man Italy. Because of their failure to reach the 2002 World Cup finals, Van Nistelrooy had to wait until Euro 2004 to make his international tournament debut.

Santiago Cañizares

National team: Spain

Tournament missed: 2002 World Cup

One nation many tipped for big things at the 2002 was underachieving Spain, who arrived in the Far East with a plethora of stars at José Antonio Camachos’ disposal. Among the least experienced was Real Madrid shot-stopper Iker Casillas, who had been selected as first choice goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares’ understudy.

However, Casillas was upgraded to protagonist after the Valencia man was involved in a freak mishap in his hotel room at Spain’s training base. Canizares severed a tendon in his right foot after accidentally smashing a bottle of aftershave and a shard of glass penetrated his skin. “It was a terrible piece of bad luck for Canizares and I am certainly not happy because a teammate has been injured,” Casillas said.

“But football is like that. Now Ricardo, [Pedro] Contreras and myself will have to fight it out for the place and any of us could be chosen.”

Casillas would end his professional career as Spain’s second-most capped player in history, while Cañizares made just 10 more international appearances before calling it quits.

Steven Gerrard

National team: England

Tournament missed: 2002 World Cup

Everyone in England seemingly became a podiatrist during early 2002 after David Beckham broke his metatarsal while on Champions League duty with Manchester United. Given the role he played getting Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men to South Korea/Japan, there was understandable fear the Three Lions skipper would miss the tournament. Beckham recovered in time but United teammate Gary Neville and rising midfield star Steven Gerrard were not so lucky. Both suffered a similar injury to Beckham, and Gerrard’s absence in particular was felt.

The gangly Liverpudlian had created a formidable partnership with Paul Scholes in the middle of the park. Nicky Butt, who came up through United’s academy system with Scholes, was a decent replacement even impressing Pele, but he lacked Gerrard’s dynamism. England would bow out at the quarter-final stage against Brazil, a game that’s best remembered for Ronaldinho — who ended up being sent off — lobbing the ball over David Seaman from a free-kick.


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Michael Ballack

National team: Germany

Tournament missed: 2010 World Cup

Germany went under the radar at the 2002 World Cup, their previous two international tournament appearances left a lot to be desired and Rudi Völler’s men were not exactly pulling up any trees. But they somehow put it together with Bayer Leverkusen star Michael Ballack leading the way. Ballack had endured a painful “Treble Horror” season — after surrendering a five-point lead atop of the Bundesliga, losing the Champions League final 2-1 to Real Madrid and the DFB-Pokal final 4-2 to Schalke — his mental strength was again tested when receiving a yellow card in the semi-final meaning he’d miss the final if Germany got there.

Ballack ensured Germany got past hosts South Korea but a Ballack-less team were no match for Brazil in the showpiece game. Fast-forward eight years and Ballack, now representing Chelsea, looked to cap off an international career by playing in the 2010 World Cup. But that dream was vanquished when he suffered an ankle injury from a foul by Portsmouth’s Kevin-Prince Boateng in the 2009/10 FA Cup final, half-brother of Germany team-mate Jerome. He would travel to South Africa to provide moral support but Germany could have done with his experience on the field when they met eventual champions Spain in the semi-finals.

Radamel Falcao

National team: Colombia

Tournament missed: 2014 World Cup

There were very few better strikers in the early 2010s than Radamel Falcao who embarrassed defenders while turning out for Porto, Atlético Madrid and Monaco as well as his national team. Colombia had another promising team on their hands with Falcao and James Rodríguez at the forefront. After missing the 2002, 2006 and 2010 finals this was going to be Colombia making up for lost time, but disaster struck as Falcao sustained a severe ACL injury earlier the year putting Los Cafeteros‘ hopes of a strong 2014 World Cup showing on thin ice.

Falcao — like Romario years before — did everything he could but ultimately made the decision to sit out as he did not feel right taking up a position if not at full health. Without him Colombia made headlines by reaching the quarter-finals, which remains their best World Cup performance to date.

Marco Reus

National team: Germany

Tournament missed: 2014 World Cup

Whether Falcao leading the line could have pushed Colombia a little further, we’ll never know. Eventual champions Germany, ending a 18-year title drought, were the ones to beat. It was an impressive position for Joachim Low’s side to hold considering they were missing Borussia Dortmund forward Marco Reus who, at this point, was a key member of Germany’s squad.

He was put down for the Brazil trip but was forced to withdraw after suffering an ankle injury in the team’s 6-1 warm-up victory against Armenia. With Germany going all the way, Reus may have missed his only shot at international glory.

Neymar

National team: Brazil

Tournament missed: 2019 Copa América

All eyes were on hosts Brazil and their megastar Neymar in 2014. By now the most-successful World Cup nation was more than a decade removed from their latest success. Things started well before Neymar sustained an injury and without him Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the semi-finals.

International success would continue to elude Neymar and on the eve of Brazil hosting the 2019 Copa América the Paris Saint-Germain forward picked up an ankle injury. His absence somewhat galvanised Tite’s men, however, as they would go on to win Brazil’s first major international title since the 2007 Copa América.