Injuries are the dreaded bane of sport, always seeming to turn up with an evil grin with the intention to wreck your party.
Among the worst of them is the dreaded tear to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which provides stability and acts as the knee’s brain. The tear hits quickly and lingers for months – which means players hate this injury more than most others.
Some players get through their careers without experiencing this injury, but some aren’t as lucky; especially not Kevin Strootman, who knows what it’s like to go under the knife all too well.
The spectre of the dreaded ACL injury seems to have taken up residence in Rome recently, with Antonio Rudiger, Mario Rui, and Alessandro Florenzi (twice), along with Strootman, succumbing to the same injury over the last two years. It is a credit to Roma that they have maintained their form since 2015 despite injuries to these key players. The Dutchman was the first victim.
Strootman graduated from the youth academy at Sparta Rotterdam, before moving to Utrecht and then PSV, before heading for Serie A. His stint in Eindhoven proved to be the pivotal stepping stone in his career as he seamlessly integrated himself at one of the Eredivisie’s top clubs.
He was rewarded with a move to Roma in 2013 in a deal worth €17 million - a big price for a defensive midfielder at the time - but this was an investment that was prudently made given the upside on the then 23-year-old. He rapidly established himself as a central midfielder in the first XI, taking part in all but two of Roma’s first 27 games, fast becoming one of Serie A’s best-performing midfielders in his debut campaign. But, of course, such a sustained run of fortune cannot exist for long, and Lady Luck stopped shining on him on 9th March 2014, when he injured his knee in a 1-0 defeat to Napoli. That ruled him out for the majority of the year, and cruelly ended his chances of representing the Netherlands in the World Cup that summer.
Louis van Gaal often spoke of Strootman as one of the Oranje’s ‘big three’, along with Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben - to be mentioned along with world-class players of that ilk was serious praise. In a 4-3-3 line-up, Strootman was one of three midfielders, the worker bee within the side, providing the defensive solidity that allowed Robben and van Persie to flourish. Van Gaal recognised Strootman as a fundamental element to his team, which became most obvious after his injury. Instead of utilising a similar profile of player, van Gaal seemingly eschewed logic by reverting to a 3-5-2 formation in the absence of his midfield engine room. This was a choice that baffled many, but ultimately paid dividends as it led to a third-placed finish in the World Cup – an achievement that started with Strootman’s injury.
He returned eight months later on 9th November, only to sustain further damage to his ACL on 26th January 2015 against Fiorentina, resulting in a second knee surgery that would rule him out for the season.
He suffered from Cyclops syndrome, which affects the mobility of the knee due to the over-generation of new tissue in healing the original injury, leading to issues with his knee and his cartilage. One of Roma’s brightest prospects, Elio Capradossi, provided him company as he recovered from his own ACL injury, and the two spurred each other on to overcome their demons. But his hopes of returning took another hit when on 26th August 2015, his injury required further surgery.
He remained strong and hopeful, but one more injury was now likely to end his career. Knee injuries can hinder a player massively both physically and psychologically, and for Strootman, it was vital to not think about his knee buckling again when he did come back to play. If he was to return to his confident self, he had to shed his demons.
And that he did, when he came back for the Roma Under-19s on February 5th, gaining widespread support including from his midfield partner, Radja Nainggolan, who tweeted out “Grande Kev”. He turned out for the first team again on 21st February 2016, nearly two years after his first injury, to a raucous reception from the Stadio Olimpico.
Now, over a year later, he has once again cemented his spot in the first XI, regaining the kind of form which saw him close to a move to Manchester United back in 2014. This is a story of a player who refused to give up after several setbacks; a player who played just 11 league games in two seasons, a depreciating asset to the club. Now he is no longer a potential liability, but a boon to the Roma midfield. He has accumulated 3196 minutes in all competitions this season, with six goals and five assists that fail to accurately convey just how important he is to the side.
Despite his questionable dive in April’s Derby della Capitale, his performance in December’s derby proved that Strootman is integral to the team’s functionality. As a deep-lying midfielder and a tough tackler, he provides security to the Roma backline as well as supporting his attack. One hopes that the new sporting director Monchi builds next season’s squad around the Dutch international, known as ‘Er Lavatrice’, or the ‘washing machine’ for his ability to clean up play.
Loyalty runs through the veins of Roma – with Francesco Totti and Daniele de Rossi living examples of this. Roma stood by Strootman with the same loyalty, while his matter-of-fact nature has endeared him to the Roma faithful, and it is likely that he will repay the club by extending his contract beyond 2018. His gratitude for the patience the club and the fans have shown him no doubt trumps the money on offer from the lucrative Premier League. It has been a joy for the football fraternity to welcome Strootman back from his injury-ravaged hell, and he is now back where he belongs – on the pitch.
No one will be happier with this season, and the hope is that he fulfils his potential with his injury issues firmly consigned to the past. His physicality has reduced, but he is now more complete. Only 27, the renaissance has begun.
When Mario Rui tore his ACL in pre-season last year, Strootman tweeted out his support for him. No one else knows better the pain of repetitive injuries and the long, lonely path of recovery. Benvenuto Kevin, football missed you.
By Rahul Warrier.