When Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Sandro hit the turf clutching his right knee during last January’s 0-0 draw with Queen’s Park Rangers, little did he suspect that it would mean the end of his season. After all, he had done nothing more than reach for the ball, a seemingly innocuous challenge with no physical contact involved.
Taking up the story in conversation with FIFA.com, the ex-Internacional man said: “The medical staff had a look in the dressing room and said to me, ‘It doesn’t seem that serious, but you’d better have an MRI scan.”
Within a few hours, however, there was reason for him to fear the worst: “I got home and my knee just started swelling up. I did the scan and the doctor came back to me and confirmed what I’d suspected: a torn anterior cruciate ligament.”
The news could not have been more dispiriting for the player, who, on returning to his London home, picked up the phone and said: “I can’t take any more. I don’t want to play football again. This is torture.” Though Sandro did not mean what he was saying, the sense of frustration at his recurring injury problems was more than he could take.
On travelling to Barcelona to consult with knee specialist Dr Ramon Cugat, he was briefly given fresh hope. Taking an initial look at the X-rays, Cugat said it was impossible to know if the ligament had been torn completely or if it was just a partial tear, adding that surgery would most likely not be required. But after further tests, came the news Sandro had been dreading: total rupture of the ligament and damage to the lateral meniscus, all of which would equate to a six-month layoff.
The timing could not have been worse, as Sandro explained: “There I was playing the best football of my career and just like that, it all went wrong.”
Fast forward six months and the player’s spirits are a good deal lighter. Now back in training with Spurs, the Brazilian has regained full use of his right knee, though he will still need to take things easy over the next few weeks as he works his way back to match fitness.
“The knee still needs to get stronger and learn how to move again, and I’m still not completely confident about going in for 50-50 balls,” said the 24-year-old, who was leading the English Premier League’s tackling statistics at the time his knee gave way. “That’s my strong suit after all: fighting for possession, defending and winning the ball back. That’s how I’ve got this far and how I worked my way into the Brazil team.”
As if the injury in itself were not bad enough, Sandro’s operation came just four days before Luiz Felipe Scolari announced his first squad list since taking over as Seleção coach.
“When I realised that I just thought: ‘That’s that. What was I doing going after that ball in the midfield? Why didn’t I just let it run by?” lamented Sandro, who had figured in the squad Mano Menezes had taken to the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 and had missed out on the Copa America one year earlier because of a less serious knee injury.
Ruing his bad luck, he added, “I was in good form and I knew I was right in the mix for a place in Felipão’s squad.”
As it turned out, while the Tottenham player was recuperating from his injury Scolari’s side began to forge a very strong identity, sweeping to victory in June’s FIFA Confederations Cup. Sandro watched the tournament from his home in England, cheering the team on and sending messages of support to his friends in the side, David Luiz and Oscar among them.
It was in the very position that Sandro occupies, the midfield holding role, that Scolari sprang his biggest surprise by selecting Luiz Gustavo, a player with little international experience going into the tournament. Discussing the new man’s performance, Sandro said: “He got his chance and made the most of it. He was one of the stand-outs in the team, especially in the final. Most of the time people don’t notice, but those of us who play in that position could see that he did a lot.”
Now back on the training ground and thankfully free of pain, Sandro is dreaming of a return to the national team, and has good grounds to do so. Speaking to the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo in his first interview after landing the Confederations Cup title, Scolari said Brazil’s Festival of Champions win did not mean his squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ was set in stone, the coach adding that he would be keeping tabs on a clutch of other players, Sandro among them.
“That really pleased me,” said the midfielder. “A lot of people said to me: ‘Felipão likes you. You’re the type of player he values,’ but it’s another thing completely to hear the coach say your name. It makes me want to do all I can to get back in the Tottenham side, play well and earn myself that chance.”
Should everything go to plan, Sandro will be teaming up before too long with fellow Brazil midfielder Paulinho, who also starred at the FIFA Confederations Cup and has just arrived at Spurs. Such a partnership could well help the unlucky midfielder muscle his way back into the national side, though he is reluctant to think that far ahead.
“Playing alongside Paulinho could be good for me but we’ll just have to wait and see,” said Sandro, mulling over his prospects. "To be honest, right now it’s all down to me. If can get back to the kind of form I was in when I got injured, then I’ll get the call, which I think I would have got before.
“I’ve lost time but now I’ve got a year in which to show I’m good enough for a place at the World Cup. There is pressure on me but it’s a nice type of pressure. After everything I’ve been through, I’m happy to be where I am right now, and all I want to do is play.”
Having said he never wanted to set foot on the pitch again, the smiling Sandro has got his appetite back.