From Maradona To Ronaldo: The Best International Comebacks From Serious Injury

Forbes Finance 1 month ago
Villarreal CF v Real Betis Balompie  - La Liga
Santi Cazorla played for Spain again after a three-and-a-half-year absence. (Photo by David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images)

Santi Cazorla could have lost his leg.

The Villarreal midfielder was told he wouldn’t play again during a horrific run of injuries that saw him spend 668 days on the sidelines. Doctors said he should be happy with being able to walk around his garden.

There were operations, skin grafts and bacteria eating his tendon.

“Mikel Sánchez, the surgeon, puts me in his talks, a case study,” Cazorla told The Guardian last year.

“He and the physios say they’ve never seen such an extreme case.”

But, remarkably, Cazorla is playing again – and he is flying.

He joined Villarreal, which he previously played for, from Arsenal at the start of last season. He played 35 times and was arguably the club’s best player. In June, aged 34, Cazorla was rewarded with a call-up to the Spanish national team, his first since November 2015. Cazorla played for his country in the win against Faroe Islands.

“Playing a single game at a top level was a very long way off so imagine [playing for] the national team. This was difficult for me to take in: it’s unexpected after everything. Now I take it as a new challenge, a new hope,” Cazorla said after his recall to the squad.

After more good form at the start of this season, he could play against Norway later today in a qualifier for the European Championships.

Cazorla will be 35 by the time the finals of the tournament begin next June, but if the Spain squad was being picked today, he’d be in it.

His comeback from severe injury to again represent his country is an amazing feat, but he is not the only one to have had such a transformation.

Here are five players – including a few of the very best – who have overcome serious injury to play for their country.


Considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, Pelé’s mark on soccer history would have been different had he not fought back from injury. The iconic Brazilian striker went to the 1966 World Cup with a big reputation, but ended it limping around the field after brutal treatment from opposition defenders. He described the tournament as the worst experience of his career.

He said he would not play in the World Cup again. Fortunately, for the world of soccer, he changed his mind in time for the 1970 World Cup. Pelé was the star as Brazil swept aside all comers. He assisted two and scored another in the 4-1 final win over Italy.

Diego Maradona

The chief rival of Pelé (and Messi) when people talk about the best player of all time, Maradona had his own injury that threatened his glittering career. In 1983, while playing for Barcelona, he was the victim of an ugly lunge from Andoni Goikoetxea, nicknamed “the butcher of Bilbao”. The ‘tackle’ broke Maradona’s ankle. The Argentine would later describe the sound as “like a piece of wood splitting”.

The injury was the beginning of the end for Maradona at Barcelona. Within a year, he had moved to Napoli, where he really started to show the world his talent. There didn’t seem much wrong with his ankle at the 1986 World Cup, where Maradona scored one of the greatest individual goals in tournament history and led Argentina to victory.


The Brazilian striker, another giant of the game, nearly had his legacy curtailed by injury. He went to the 1998 World Cup in France as the star of the Brazil squad. Aged just 21, he was scoring goals and playing well as Brazil reached the final against the hosts. Hours before the game, however, Ronaldo suffered a convulsive fit. He started the match anyway but Brazil lost, 3-0. “We lost the World Cup but I won another cup - my life," Ronaldo later said.

The player known as El Fenomeno (The Phenomenon) still had his best years ahead of him, but a series of serious knee injuries saw him spend more time on the sidelines. He missed Brazil’s qualification campaign but was picked for the World Cup in 2002. It was there the Brazilian found his redemption. He scored eight goals including two in the victory over Germany in the final.   

FUSSBALL : WM 2002 in JAPAN und KOREA , BRA - BEL 2:0
FUSSBALL : WM 2002 in JAPAN und KOREA , Kobe , 17.06.02 Match 54 / ACHTELFINALE / BRASILIEN - BELGIEN ( BRA - BEL ) 2:0 RONALDO / BRA FOTO:BONGARTS/Gunnar-Berning

Petr Čech

In October 2006, while playing for Chelsea, Čech suffered an injury that threatened his life. Čech slid in to win the ball at the feet of Reading’s Stephen Hunt and Hunt’s knee made contact with the goalkeeper’s head. Čech doesn’t remember the incident or the immediate aftermath. He had a depressed skull fracture and was rushed for life-saving surgery including two metal plates fitted in his head. "It was a very close call," he told Sky Sports.

Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech lies is eva
Reading, UNITED KINGDOM: Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech lies is evacuated after being injured in the first few minutes of the game against Reading during the Premiership football match at The Madejski Stadium in Reading 14 October 2006. AFP PHOTO

Only three months later, Čech was back playing. A year after the injury, he captained the Czech Republic as it beat Germany 3-0 away in a Euro 2008 qualifier. He played for his country at the Euro 2008 and 2012 finals. In 2016, Čech announced his international retirement. He is the most capped player in the history of the Czech team, winning 124 caps.

Aaron Ramsey

Playing for Arsenal against Stoke in 2010, midfielder Aaron Ramsey had his leg broken in two places after a red-card challenge from Ryan Shawcross. His tibia and fibula were shattered. "When it happened and I saw my leg, all kinds of different thoughts were going through my head," Ramsey told The Independent in 2011. His rehabilitation took nine months.

But Ramsey not only recovered, he got better and better. The Welshman excelled at Arsenal and now plays for Italian champions Juventus. For his country, Ramsey was made the youngest ever Wales captain, aged 20, in 2011. And he starred as Wales made a stunning run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, finishing the tournament as the joint-highest assist provider.

Wales v Slovakia - Group B: UEFA Euro 2016
BORDEAUX, FRANCE - JUNE 11: Wales's Aaron Ramsey during the UEFA Euro 2016 Group B match between Wales and Slovakia at Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux on June 11, 2016 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Kevin Barnes/CameraSport via Getty Images)

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