"It's been a very hard road back but I finally reached my destination in the 82nd minute at the Tcentralny Stadium in Kazakhstan." That comment on the welcome page of Aziza Makukula's website says it all. Portugal's UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier with the eastern European minnows on October 17 was heading for stalemate when the front man put his side ahead with a powerful header from Ricardo Quaresma's cross. "I dedicate the goal to everyone who has helped me through these very difficult years," he said afterwards with visible emotion.
Aziza's travails all began in January 2004 when he tore cruciate ligaments in his right knee, marking the start of an injury nightmare that has come to a happy end at long last. FIFA.com is here with his story.
A footballing pilgrim
The son of a Congolese footballer, Makukula began his football education at Portuguese club Vitoria Guimaraes, where his father played. So promising was he that at the age of 19 he crossed the border to begin his odyssey in the Spanish leagues. First port of call was Salamanca and after two seasons there he made a brief incursion into France, where he turned out for Nantes. The following year he returned to Spain on loan to Valladolid, and before long he was banging the goals in for the Blanquivioletas and attracting the attention of some of the country's big guns.
Just as his career was about to take off, however, fate dealt him a harsh blow. In a league game at Malaga in January 2004, the burly striker suffered serious cruciate ligament damage in his right knee and so began his injury torment. Fortunately for the stricken goalgetter, Sevilla made a leap of faith by offering him a contract that ran through to 2009 and promised to nurse him back to full fitness. So grateful was the player, whose leg was still in bandages when he signed the deal, that he named his newborn son after the Andalusian club's president Jose Maria del Nido.
All the same, the road to recovery was much more arduous than expected. After numerous visits to a specialist in Belgium, countless sessions with physiotherapists, and just 13 games and a solitary goal in two seasons, Sevilla decided to loan the luckless striker to Gimnastic Tarragona for the 2006/2007 season. Struggling to regain his goalscoring instinct of old, Maku found the back of the net only once in a dozen games as Nastic slipped back into the second division, a lean run of form that prompted his employers to farm him out once more.
Back to his roots
And so it was that Makukula journeyed to the island of Madeira to ply his trade for unfashionable but ambitious outfit Maritimo and fulfil his ambition to get back in the goals. "I never even thought about retiring because I've always been a fighter, and the fact is I'm really enjoying my new life now," he says.
Under the wing of his new coach Sebastiao Lazaroni, Maku has found the stability and peace of mind he needed to rediscover his scoring touch. "He's the perfect penalty-box operator," explains Lazaroni. "He's very tall and that makes him extremely useful in the air. He also uses his height to keep defenders busy, and although he's still got some way to go in terms of his agility and strength, there's no doubt he's working very hard." Things certainly seem to be going Makukula's way at the start of the season, and his four-goal haul in the opening eight games has helped the islanders into fifth spot.
With Nuno Gomes struck down by injury in the build-up to Portugal's two most recent EURO 2008 qualifiers, the doors of the national side have also opened to the Congolese-born hitman, with coach Luis Felipe Scolari calling on him to fill the breach. "He's trying to put his career back together and the international call-up was deserved reward for all the exceptional work he's been putting in," says his club coach, who provided Scolari with favourable reports on the striker's progress.
When the call came the 26-year-old cut short his holidays in Belgium and caught the first flight out to Kazakhstan. The long journey was well worth it, Makukula teaming up well with Quaresma, Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani and capping a fine debut with a vital late goal.
Having shown real grit and determination to kick start his career once again and prove to the world that he still has much to offer, the newly capped Portugal man is intent on achieving yet more goals, including a successful return to La Liga. "My aim has always been to succeed at Sevilla and I've got some unfinished business with them."