Injuries are unavoidable in football. As the modern game becomes even faster and tighter, with less and less time on the ball and space on the pitch, the demands on the body become greater and greater. Every player, at some point, will need to deal with an injury. And while some are luckier, only made to endure niggling muscle strains or painful knocks, others face multiple injuries, one after another, forcing long stretches out of the game, requiring massive doses of mental strength and discipline. USA and West Ham United man Jonathan Spector recently spoke with FIFA.com about his personal experience with big injuries and long, agonising stretches on the sidelines.
Spector, 23, was in fine fettle when the Americans shocked the world to reach the final of the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa last June, but national team fans could have been forgiven for thinking the brawny, blond-haired back was a new member of Bob Bradley’s squad. Missing out on all of 2006 and most of 2008, Spector – once a shining young star for the future – was forced to deal with a seemingly endless succession of cruel injuries that kept him out of action for the majority of the last three seasons for both club and country.
“It’s not easy as a player to be forced out with an injury and have to watch what’s going on around you and not be a part of it,” Spector told FIFA.com, after doing his impressive best in the FIFA Confederations Cup win against world number-one Spain in the semi-final in South Africa. “When you’re injured you are kind of on your own and you have to keep yourself strong. You need to keep focused on the hard and not particularly fun job of getting yourself back to fitness. What’s most important, though, is that you don’t lose track of your goals, what you need to do once you get back on the field.”
Spector, who broke out with the USA junior set-up in 2003 and played alongside Freddy Adu at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Finland, was so highly touted as a teenager that Sir Alex Ferguson was moved to bring the young man – a native of Chicago’s blustery suburbs - to Manchester United when he was only 17. After becoming the youngest American player to debut in the English Premier League in 2004, insidious injuries began to strike. In addition to a succession of hip injuries, he suffered a shoulder dislocation that knocked him out of contention for what was sure to be a starting spot in the US side at the FIFA World Cup Germany 2006™. Bone spurs caused him to miss 2008’s Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing and a troubling string of concussions had him out of action more recently. As his time on the treatment table increased, Spector’s minutes for the US national team steadily decreased. Starring in the CONCACAF Gold Cup triumph of 2007, Spector missed all of 2008 and had to fight his way back for the Stars and Stripes in 2009 – a task he was well up to.
“Sometimes an injury leads to another injury; you can’t let yourself get down about it,” said the brave and versatile defender, described by captain Carlos Bocanegra as a “critical piece” of the USA’s defensive unit. Unable to show his true worth to Ferguson in Manchester, Spector was loaned out to Charlton Athletic for the 2005/2006 season – where he secured regular first-team action - and was eventually sold to West Ham United, where he continued to struggle initially with injuries at the start of the 2006/2007 campaign. After making only eight appearances for Manchester United, Spector is now beginning to earn more regular playing minutes under West Ham manager Gianfranco Zola.
“I think I’ve turned the corner now,” added the player, mature beyond his tender years. “I went through some tough times, but I never felt sorry for myself. I think now I am a stronger player, and a stronger person. All I am thinking about doing now is getting out on the field and re-establishing myself for my club and for my national team.” US coach Bradley is keen to see Spector back on his active team sheet, too. "He's a player who hasn't had the best luck with staying healthy," Bradley acknowledged. "But when he's been with us, he's shown he has some important qualities."
Spector, who can play centre-back as well as out wide on the right, figured in the USA’s remaining South Africa 2010 qualifiers after the conclusion of the Confederations Cup. And with Bradley having selection issues ahead of this June and July’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa, Spector – should he manage to stay fit – will likely figure as a starter in the side. “It wasn’t always easy and I had a lot of help from the people around me, but I never lost my desire to get back,” said the player, with 23 caps already to his name. “Now the only thing I want to do is to play, to help my teammates.”