LONDON: When we wish a professional athlete all the best for the New Year, we take good health for granted. We are wrong to make that assumption.
Markus Babbel and Christian Ziege are Germany's best right and left flank footballers. They earn their fortunes with English clubs. Both are laid low with uncommon, disabling and frightening physical ailments.
Babbel has spent a year and a half striving to resume his Liverpool career after being paralysed, and fearing worse, by Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition of unknown origin but sometimes deadly consequences.
Ziege was injured while playing for Tottenham Hotspur on Boxing Day. It seemed a mild thing, an opponent’s knee in his thigh, bruising, the “dead leg” effect where a player temporarily loses feeling in the limb. It was less of an annoyance than the fact that Ziege had managed to get himself sent off for the second match running.
During the night, however, the pain mounting and the thigh swelling to twice its normal size, Ziege phoned the Tottenham team physician. Fortunately, the doctor was at home and of clear mind. He responded with a house call, and within hours Ziege was undergoing emergency surgery to save the leg.
“I thought it was a bruise, just a normal football injury that we Germans call a horse’s kiss,” Ziege wrote on his personal website the following day.
“In fact, it was an elefantenkuss - an elephant kiss!”
The damaged muscle in the left thigh had swollen to such an extent that it was cutting off the blood supply to the leg. The surgeons made a 10-inch (25cm) incision into the thigh to drain off fluids building up around the muscle - a syndrome known as decompartmentalisation - and then Ziege had to wait in hospital until Monday when the inflammation subsided so that the open wound could be sutured.
He will miss up to 12 weeks of action, which possibly means the rest of this season. Ziege’s wife, Pia, and their three children, had gone home to Berlin because - only in England - players are busy performing five matches in 11 days.
Babbel and Ziege are to some extent heroic figures. Each has represented Germany more than 50 times. Each relies on balance and mobility and his gift at guiding a moving ball. And each is 30 years' old, by no means beyond the sporting prime.
There is another connection. Of all the teams that could have hired them, their careers overlapped for a season at Liverpool. The club are still facing legal action for E11 million (US$11.5 million) compensation from another English team, Middlesbrough, who claim Liverpool illegally approached Ziege in mid-contract two years ago. Since then, the restless Ziege has moved again, to a London team, Tottenham.
In that time, the Berliner’s left foot has been a vital component in the Spurs’ upward momentum. There is no reason not to wish him good luck, good health and God speed for a return in the spring.
Babbel is a different case. Liverpool are run by an exceptional humanitarian, who recently gave Babbel the comfort of a five-year extension to his salary. Gerard Houllier, the coach and manager, himself most grateful to be in work after life-saving heart surgery 15 months ago, has never stopped reassuring Babbel that, once he conquers the malady, the time lost to his career will be added on because the body will have had a rest.
It is an intriguing philosophy. But Babbel, stronger in character than he might have been before listlessness, then rapidly advancing paralysis spread upward from the feet, knows full well he is lucky to be contemplating playing. “Guillain-Barre Syndrome happens to 100 people in 1 million,” says Babbel. “Your body produces too many antibodies until they fight your immune system.”
The illness knows no barrier of ethnicity, age, sex or lifestyle. In the rehabilitation clinic outside Munich where he was treated, he saw patients unable to breathe by themselves, and they saw a professional sportsman confined to a wheelchair.
Even though he knew GBS had terminated the career of Olaf Bodden, with whom he once played in the Bundesliga, and even though Morten Wieghorst, a Dane who played for Glasgow Celtic, was on a ventilator through the disease, it never came to that for Babbel.
He learned to walk again, to jog, to run. He told himself, his family, and perhaps unwisely told his supporters, last summer that he felt a month away from match fitness. Not until November did his Liverpool boss deem that form and physique were ready for a comeback.
Babbel is exactly what Liverpool lacks, a forceful individual who can provide momentum on the right of midfield. He played in a victorious 3-1 victory over Southampton in a Worthington Cup tie, then a game in the Premier League. But in his third match, exposed by the pace of Darius Vassell, one of England’s quickest movers, Babbel was substituted. He peeled off his shirt and threw it onto the turf. That was a week before Christmas. We have not seen Babbel since, nor should we rush him.
The core fitness to play high-quality pro football takes months, possibly years, to recapture. “I took Markus off because he had problems coping,” said Houllier.
“He was frustrated by the decision, but that shows he cares. Probably because he showed some good quality straight away after returning to training, we thought he could stay at that level. It is not as simple as that.”
Life never is. There is no immunity, no guarantees, even for the ablest-bodied. If there is justice, 2003 will restore what was taken away from a pair of fine German wing backs. – IHT