Battling back from the brink
© AFP

"You say to yourself: ‘I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I live a healthy lifestyle and I’m a top-level athlete’ – and then all of a sudden someone tells you you have cancer. Your whole world collapses around your feet.” Carlos Roa is unlikely to ever forget hearing the news that heralded the darkest period of his career, but although the Argentinian goalkeeper was back competing in top-flight football just a year later in 2005, he is by no means the only player to have suffered a serious personal trauma. Far from being immune, football is just as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life as any other pursuit, and when ill fortune strikes we cannot help but be reminded that it is just a game.

“I was told I had cancer a few weeks after my child was born,” recalls Cardiff City midfielder Stephen McPhail. “My wife was devastated and I was more worried about the people close to me than about myself. The ordeal put football in perspective for me and forced me to look at life in a new way.” The 30-year-old went as far as hiding his diagnosis from his team-mates over a period of three matches at the end of 2009. “That allowed me to forget it, which is what I needed.” Following treatment, the Republic of Ireland international eventually returned to action in February.

Like Roa and McPhail, many other professional footballers – and some of the finest talents in the game – have overcome a life-threatening illness. In each case, the most important contest they have faced has been the battle to conserve life itself. Many have been able to pick up their careers where they left off and others hope to soon do likewise. Some, however, have been obliged to hang up their boots, satisfied at least that they have completed the road to recovery.

Triumphant returns
The encouraging news for players grappling with illness is that football boasts more than its fair share of fairytales, as both Ivan Klasnic and Nwankwo Kanu would doubtless testify. The first and only player to have battled his way back following two kidney transplants, Bolton striker Klasnic helped himself to a pair of goals just two weeks after returning to competitive action with Werder Bremen. As for Premier League stalwart Kanu, now at Portsmouth, the 33-year-old’s playing days seemed to be over when he underwent open-heart surgery in 1996, yet he defied all expectations by becoming one of Nigeria’s most successful players ever, so far plundering 53 strikes in the English top flight.

Former Bulgarian international Luboslav Penev will know exactly the kinds of emotions his fellow forwards must have gone through – both at their lowest ebb and after their triumphant comebacks. A year on from missing the 1994 FIFA World Cup™ during his fight against testicular cancer, he won the Spanish double with Atletico Madrid. In a similar vein, former Argentinian international Hugo Morales quickly made his mark again too, firing a last-minute winner for Lanus in his first match back following a delicate operation and seven months of treatment for cancer. “I never gave up because I love football too much,” says ‘Higuito’. “When the coach told me I’d be on the bench, I said to the team doctor that I’d come on and make the difference. The San Lorenzo supporters clapped me, which was fantastic. The goal was a magnificent gift from life and from football.”

You say to yourself: ‘I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I live a healthy lifestyle and I’m a top-level athlete’ – and then all of a sudden someone tells you you have cancer. Your whole world collapses around your feet.
Former Argentina goalkeeper Carlos Roa

In Markus Babbel’s case, it was Guillain-Barre syndrome that struck him down at the height of a successful spell with Liverpool. Paralysed at one point and consigned to a wheelchair, he was invited to give a ceremonial kick-off to a match at Anfield, but he too recovered to complete a sensational comeback in the Premier League that transformed his take on life. “I became a totally different man at that moment,” he says now. “I realised how beautiful football is as a sport and how quickly everything can end.” Now hoping to make his mark in the dugout, he recently finished a fairly encouraging stint as coach of Stuttgart, the club where he called time on his playing days.

New outlooks
For former Germany striker Heiko Herrlich, top scorer in the Bundesliga in 1995, the detection of a brain tumour in 2000 signalled more than just the end of his top-flight journey. His sole ambition was to live, but a year later he was back on a pitch plying his trade with Borussia Dortmund. While he never quite scaled the same heights as before, for three seasons he was a firm favourite with the Dortmund faithful. Now coach of Bochum, he has adopted the mantra: “When you fall down, you have to get back up immediately.”

Australian international Craig Moore would surely concur with those sentiments. Just eight days after having his left testicle removed, in fact, the Socceroos defender began training again with A-League side Queensland Roar, and in January he signed for Greek outfit Kavala with hopes of earning a FIFA World Cup place.

South Africa is sure to prove elusive to both Millwall striker Neil Harris and Hull City goalkeeper Matt Duke, in contrast, but the English duo have opted to focus on a different priority. Both testicular cancer survivors, they responded to their ordeals by founding the Everyman Male Cancer Campaign, demonstrating real generosity of spirit. Having combated the same condition away from the pitch, in an interesting twist they later found themselves pitted against each other in an FA Cup tie, won 2-0 by Duke and Co last January.

Christophe Pignol’s career as a professional footballer is sadly over, on the other hand, the Frenchman unable to plot his route back after developing leukemia in 2001. Following several years of treatment he nonetheless recovered from the disease and took up the game again at amateur level. Now involved with futsal in Marseille, he has set up an association dedicated to leukemia research.

‘A message of hope’
Early retirement was the last thing Julio Gonzalez and Diego Buonanotte wanted to hear about, meanwhile. Paraguayan marksman Gonzalez had been lethal in front of goal for Italian Serie B side Vicenza when tragedy struck for him in December 2005. He lost his left arm in a terrible car accident, but neither his appetite nor his goalscoring instincts deserted him and he currently leads the line for club side President Hayes. “The accident I suffered wasn’t as bad as all that because it helped me understand the true beauty of the world and life itself,” he says. “In the hospital, I saw people who were in a far worse state than me but I always saw them smile. Now I want to bring a message of hope to those who need it.”

Hope is a word closely linked with Buonanotte as well, since he is one of the most promising young talents in the Argentinian game. The only survivor in a horrendous car accident that took the lives of three of his friends in January, the diminutive River Plate forward has his heart set on returning to action in May. He too, no doubt, will be hungry to announce his return in emphatic fashion.