The Sound of Nations Gasping
Injuries to Several World Cup Hopefuls Have Entire Countries on Edge; Ghana’s Big Loss.ArticleComments (6)more in Sports Main ».EmailPrintSave This ↓ More.
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Compared with the American version of football, soccer doesn’t seem all that rough. There are no helmets, no blind-side hits. Just a bunch of con-artists who howl in fake agony to the referees whenever they go down.

Here’s the thing, though: A lot of them aren’t getting up.

Agence France-Press/Getty Images

German star Michael Ballack, while playing for Chelsea of the English Premier League, suffered ligament damage to his ankle on this tackle by Kevin-Prince Boateng of Portsmouth—he will miss the World Cup.
.As the June 11 opening of the World Cup approaches, injuries are clouding the tournament. From England to Germany to Ghana, teams are breathlessly awaiting last-minute word on whether key players can play—or are already resigned to the likelihood that they can’t.

The predicament highlights a fact well-known among players and coaches, but not among casual observers: This is an incredibly grueling game, largely because of its unique, almost ceaseless schedule.

Unlike American football and the other major U.S. team sports, which have four-to-six-month offseasons depending on whether a team reaches the playoffs, the 38-game season of the English Premier League runs from mid-August through early May. On top of that are World Cup qualifying matches, “friendlies” (or exhibition games) and the myriad club trophies that European sides compete for.

Chelsea, of the Premier League, played an additional 18 games this season by competing for the FA Cup, the Carling Cup, the Community Shield and the Champions League.

“It’s easy for us to say, ‘Come on, it’s the World Cup, they should get up for it,’ ” says Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. national-team defender who is now an ESPN analyst. “Emotionally you can do that, but physically, you wonder how long that adrenaline can last for some of these players. It’s just amazing the amount of games they play—and then the next thing you know, they’re getting ready for the biggest tournament in the world.”

It’s not necessarily foul play that’s causing all the pain. Soccer players can get hurt without an opponent even being nearby. Because of wear and tear from the schedule, and because of the unending running, planting and jumping that the sport requires, players constantly suffer noncontact injuries to their knees, ankles and feet.

At the latest World Cup, in 2006, 27% of all injuries involved no direct contact with another player, according to the official medical report of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. “Heading into this World Cup, I’ve seen a lot of injuries that have been self-inflicted: myself, Beckham,” says U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu.

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.Mr. Onyewu, who is critical to the U.S.’s shaky, gimpy defense, is coming back from a ruptured left patellar tendon, suffered when he tried to head a corner kick on the slick turf during an October World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica. “I could’ve sworn until I saw the video that somebody kicked me,” said Mr. Onyewu, who insists he’s fine now. But the manner in which he got beaten on a goal in Tuesday’s friendly against the Czech Republic raised eyebrows. As Tomas Sivok outjumped him for the header, Mr. Onyewu barely got off the ground.

But at least he’s out there. David Beckham, the longtime English star, won’t play after tearing his left Achilles’ tendon in March, while innocuously planting his left foot with no one near him during an AC Milan game.

Spain, considered a co-favorite along with Brazil to win the tournament, has been on edge over the condition of forward Fernando Torres, who underwent knee surgery last month, and midfielder Cesc Fabregas, who is coming back from a broken leg. Both have returned to training with the club, however. South Korea’s promising squad will probably have to play its opener against Greece without forward Lee Dong-Gook, the top scorer in Korea’s league last year, because of a hamstring injury.

For England, the run-up to South Africa has been a maddening procession of pulls, ligament tears and injury scares. Panic-inducing pre-World Cup injuries have become a tradition for the English, who in 2002 and 2006, respectively, saw Mr. Beckham and Wayne Rooney suffer metatarsal injuries just weeks before the big event. (Both recovered in time to play, although neither was in top form.)

With World Cup rosters due Tuesday, England is waiting until the last minute to decide whether to include injured midfielder Gareth Barry, although coach Fabio Capello is confident he’ll be ready. Mr. Rooney and John Terry went down with potentially devastating injuries this spring—Mr. Rooney to an ankle ailment, Mr. Terry to the dreaded foot curse—but both were later found to be minor. Forward Bobby Zamora would’ve made the preliminary roster, coach Mr. Capello said, but he had to pull out because of an Achilles’ injury.

“There are far too many games,” says Tommy Smyth, an ESPN analyst. “Fulham played [62] games this year to get to the final of the Europa League. It’s all about maximizing as much money as you can get out of the players. It’s just such a grind now.”

It is particularly so in England, which is known for a rougher brand of play. But former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, who is managing Ivory Coast in this World Cup, said that research has shown that Premier League players incur more injuries than other European-league players because of their schedule. “It was mostly because the season is so long, and especially because they don’t have a [winter] break,” Mr. Eriksson says. Other European leagues take a few weeks off in December and January.

But then there’s the carnage from contact. U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra got kicked in his knee this spring and somehow wound up undergoing surgery for a sports hernia—an abdominal injury—on May 5. “I ended up compensating and running differently, and then got pain in my abdomen,” says Mr. Bocanegra, who is on the U.S. roster and says he’s fine now.

The most controversial pre-World Cup injury cost Germany its captain and has become a matter of international intrigue. In the FA Cup final May 15, midfielder Michael Ballack, who was named to the past two World Cup All-Star teams, suffered torn ligaments in his right ankle on a questionable tackle by Kevin-Prince Boateng, who plays for Ghana—which is in Group D with Germany. Mr. Boateng, who claimed Mr. Ballack slapped him earlier in the match, has apologized for the tackle.

But Ghana has its own problems. Star midfielder Michael Essien, who plays for Chelsea, was ruled out of the World Cup on Thursday because of a knee injury. His loss is far more devastating to Ghana than Mr. Ballack’s to Germany, because Mr. Ballack, 33, is declining and Germany’s roster is deeper.

Then again, Germany has also lost No. 1 goalkeeper Rene Adler and Christian Traesch, another midfielder, for the World Cup to pre-tournament injuries. “Injuries are part of football, unfortunately,” says Mr. Eriksson, the Ivory Coast coach. “The risk is always there.”

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