It appears Ousmane Dembélé’s season and Barcelona career might be in jeopardy. Barcelona announced the winger suffered “a complete proximal hamstring tear in his right thigh” while recovering from another injury. It was the latest in a long list of injuries that have turned one of the most promising and expensive players in soccer into a potential case of “what could have been.” Just as it looked like Dembélé was beginning to mature, his body failed him again in a terrible way.
The Dembélé announcement comes days after Giuseppe Rossi was reported to be in contract talks with Real Salt Lake. Rossi also had a promising career derailed by his body’s inability to cooperate with his hopes and dreams. As soon as he recovered from one injury, he would immediately suffer another, until he became what he is now: an Italian international trying to salvage the last years of his career at the age of 33.
Jack Wilshere, another in the long line of players let down by the fragility of the human body, recently responded on Instagram to the jokes by football fans about his consistent injuries. In the message, he asked fans to remember in their laughter that he is a human being who only wants to play the game he loves, and that his body is not allowing him to do so.
Like those snakebitten athletes before him, Dembélé will have to suffer jokes and calls for him to be sold, which can be read throughout the Twitter replies to his injury announcement. Fans’ frustration is understandable; they look to him to help accomplish the team’s goals, and his injuries make the team weaker. So much faith and hope has been put on Dembélé, and he hasn’t repaid it. It’s the business of football: the sport turns players into products, and when a product is defective, it is mocked and discarded to be replaced by another that works.
Yet few things are more tragic in sports than injuries. It would make more sense to be frustrated with players over their failures of character, like Dembélé’s maturity issues, than their failures of body. Character is a matter of one’s choices, whereas a player may be as powerless as anyone else to prevent their body from breaking down. Even worse, only the player bears the burden of inactivity and the grueling emotional toll of rehabilitation.
The last thing an athlete wants is to be hurt. It violates the essence of their existence — their passions, hopes, happiness and entire livelihoods. As Wilshere stated, he simply wants to play football and his body will not allow him. And Rossi, even after all that he’s been through, still wants a place to play the game he loves.
To ridicule players for a failure beyond their control is to suppose they were intentionally making themselves miserable, or that their fragility is their fault. Never forget those who escape serious injuries throughout their careers are, above all, lucky, even factoring in the intense maintenance practices that go into keeping players in shape.
Elite-level sports optimizes the body to its limits on a weekly basis. But as players become near superhuman in terms of speed and stamina, they also stress their bodies in ways that are only sustainable with great amounts of care. Some bodies can thrive in those conditions, and others can’t.
Football is littered with stories of talented players who were never able to thrive simply because their bodies couldn’t handle the stress of the profession, regardless of the player’s wishes. Perhaps even more than stories of great players, there are the what-ifs of great players who could have been, like Rossi and Wilshere. Dembélé is still young enough to one day reach his best, but his body has already cost him vital years of development.
If he does escape this cycle of injuries, Dembélé will need to work hard in rehabilitation and be disciplined in taking care of his body going forward. It takes a strong mentality to deal with so many setbacks. But even if he does take care of everything he can control, the absurd nature of injuries means he will need a lot of luck to stay healthy. And luck cannot be held accountable.