There are few worse occupational hazards for a professional footballer than suffering a long-term injury, a time of uncertainty when the excruciating pain of the moment is followed by a seemingly endless period of inactivity. Overcoming such setbacks requires commitment, dedication and strength of character. By the time they step back on to the pitch, players have been through so much they often feel reborn.
That sense of relief is currently being experienced by Thomas Vermaelen. The Barcelona and Belgium central defender has just emerged from an injury nightmare that lasted virtually the whole of last season and prevented him from enjoying what was a hugely successful campaign for his club. Now fully recovered and raring to go again, he has his sights set on winning his first trophy with Los Azulgranas at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015.
The toughest test
Life seemed so rosy for Vermaelen back in August 2014. After helping Belgium to impress at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, the then 29-year-old signed for Barcelona. A recurring calf injury kept him sidelined for a whole 11 months, however, with the Belgian making just one appearance in his first season with Luis Enrique’s side.
“It was difficult, really hard,” Vermaelen recalled in an interview with FIFA.com. “Being injured and unable to play not only affected me on the pitch. It also made it much harder for me to settle in at my new club and in a new city. All I wanted was to be fit and to step out on the pitch again, and I worked really hard to make that happen.”
Vermaelen’s long-awaited debut with Barça eventually came on 23 May, on the final day of the 2014/15 Liga campaign. Having missing the rest of it, he is determined to make up for lost time: “This season has been completely different for me. I was able to start the pre-season with my team-mates, which is really important when you’re a player. I feel like I’m more a part of the team now. I’m fit and I think I can contribute.”
The Belgian has made three league appearances so far this season, finding the back of the net with a powerful drive against Malaga, and has also started two UEFA Champions League matches and a Copa del Rey tie. Though that may not sound like much, the centre-half is aware that he needs to be patient. “I know that we have a lot of high-class players in the team and that I’m going to have to fight hard for the chance to play. I’m delighted that I’m able to compete now, though. I can sense that I’m improving every day, and I know that if I train well then the opportunities will start to come my way.”
Taking on the world
Aside from his own personal drive, a further source of motivation for the former Arsenal player is the fact that Barça are in a rich vein of form. Despite Saturday’s draw at Valencia, their emphatic clásico win over Real Madrid is still very fresh in the memory: “We weren’t as convincing at the start of the season, but the fact is that we put in a spectacular performance against Real Madrid. I think we’re playing our very best football right now and that obviously gives us a lot of confidence.”
As far as the Antwerp-born defender is concerned, much of the praise for that should go to coach Luis Enrique, who he has no hesitation in comparing to one of the great tacticians in world football: “He’s a very good coach. In fact, when I think about it, he’s very similar to Arsene Wenger, especially in terms of tactics. We don’t hit long balls and we try to build from the back. They’re also similar in the types of players that they like. Obviously, every coach has their own unique characteristics, but if you take away the little details, the fact is that there isn’t much difference.”
Life is beginning to smile once more on Vermaelen, who will shortly be setting off for Japan to take part in the Club World Cup, a trip he is looking forward to: “I’ve been there before and I love the country. I always enjoy it there, though we’re obviously not going sightseeing,” joked the Azulgrana No23. “We’re going there to compete and to win, and we have to remember that. It’s a new experience for me. It’s a competition I’ve never played in before and I’m very excited.”
Fit again and mentally refreshed, Vermaelen has no shortage of medium and long-term goals to aim for as he strives for European glory with club and country: “I want to keep moving forward and to win every title with Barça, both for the club and because it would keep me in the thoughts of the national team coach for the Euros in France, which is a tournament I’m very excited about.”
Capped 51 times in his nine-year international career, Vermaelen is hopeful that Les Diables Rouges, who currently top the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, can impress in France.
“We’ve got a point to prove,” he said, rounding off the chat. “We played well in the World Cup but it was disappointing to lose to Argentina. There’s no way we can be considered favourites until we start getting good results in major tournaments. We’re in good form, though, and I don’t think we’ll disappoint. I’m full of confidence.”