‘It is a tense time’: World Cup turnaround carries injury risk

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Martin Rogers

FOX Sports Insider

Raphael Varane had friends close by, offering consolation and condolence, but the flow of tears wouldn’t stem. He pulled the neck of his jersey upward, to the bridge of his nose, defeated, deflated, unable to comprehend the cruelty of fate’s hand. 

This took place on Oct. 22, and moments earlier, as Varane – a defender for Manchester United and the France national team – lunged for the ball as Chelsea’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang sped alongside him, he felt something pop in his knee. Just like that, one of soccer’s finest players was ruled out of the sport’s greatest tournament, hence the on-field tears. 

In that moment, his situation became the manifestation of a potential nightmare lurking in the minds of every athlete preparing for the World Cup, now just 17 days away. 

“You know what’s going on, you know where we are at and how close we are and you see the stuff that’s happened,” Kellyn Acosta, midfielder for the United States national team and one of the men desperately wishing to avert the curse that struck Varane, told me on Tuesday. “It is a tense time.” 

[USMNT Stock Watch: McKennie injury puts pressure on reserves]

This Saturday, Acosta will take the field for LAFC in the MLS Cup final (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App), matching up against the Philadelphia Union in what will be the biggest game of his nine-year professional career. The biggest … until that distinction is bettered, a couple of weeks later, assuming he takes part in the USA’s World Cup opener against Wales at Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar. 

Acosta is in a spot where there is only one correct course of action, but it is one that flies directly in contradiction to human nature. Top-level soccer allows for no quarter given, no holding back, no reservation, no caution. 

Namely, no such thing as playing to avoid injury. 

But try adopting such a devil-may-care attitude when the World Cup is all you’ve thought of these past months. Or if you’ve seen Varane – a four-time Champions League medalist and a 2018 World Cup winner – break down in front of tens of millions on live television. 

“For all of us the World Cup is a dream,” Acosta added. “It is like a childhood dream and we are at a kind of countdown now. 

“But if you go into a game playing not to get injured, then more than likely you are going to get injured. You just can’t do that.  

“For me, I have just channeled it into maintaining the things that I can do right, and being mindful of the little details, like eating right and resting well. I am not going to be saving any energy. It is the MLS Cup and this is what we have dreamed of as well. This is what the club set out to achieve.” 

The nature and timing of this year’s World Cup has allowed no room for either error or mishap. For example, the last English Premier League game before the World Cup-imposed pause, is on Nov. 13. Six days later, the most fervent showpiece in sports kicks off, when host nation Qatar takes on the Netherlands. 

There are no long pre-event training camps. No slow acclimation. No backstop period for minor knocks and strains to heal in time for the opening game. Just straight into it. 

“You can see the wheels turning for these players every game,” former USMNT star and FOX analyst Alexi Lalas told me via telephone. “They are human. Don’t think for a second they aren’t thinking that every tackle or sprint puts at risk the possibility of living out their dream. 

“It doesn’t matter how rich and famous they are. These are men who have thought about the World Cup since they were boys. It is impossible to turn it off. The more out of your mind it is, the better, but that is easier said than done.” 

[France star Paul Pogba ruled out of World Cup with knee injury]

Acosta is trying hard to keep it from his thinking. LAFC’s story this season is a mightily impressive one and the club, which began play in 2018 as an expansion franchise, has the chance to add its first major trophy in front of its own, raucously passionate supporters, at Banc of California Stadium. 

A place in the final was assured with a 3-0 cruise past Austin FC last weekend, but Saturday’s visitors from Philly are not to be taken lightly, having surged back from a goal down to blow away New York City FC to decide the Eastern Conference bracket. 

“I am staying present, although it is hard,” Acosta said. “If you had told me when I was 14 that I would be playing an MLS Cup and have the chance to go to a World Cup right after, I would have thought you were crazy.” 

It is a thrilling time for soccer fans, for nothing gets the juices flowing like a World Cup, a global extravaganza that holds a transfixing effect on social life in virtually every corner of the planet for an entire month. 

It is the event every player wants to be part of, so important that missing it through a late flutter of misfortune would be nothing short of a heartbreaker. 

As for poor Varane, it turns out, he has been rehabbing exhaustively and, in defiance of medical prediction, might be able to make it onto France’s squad after all.  

Either way, his plight is one no player wants to entertain, amid this strange time when the most important part of getting ready for the tournament of your life is to just to stay healthy. 

Even when the best way to do that is not to try to do it at all. 

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter. 

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