LONDON: After scoring a trademark Ruud van Nistelrooy goal – defined by the hunger to move where predators sense opportunity, the physical strength to hold off two Mexican opponents and the sureness of his finishing touch – the striker turned to milk the applause crowd.
He may have been looking for somebody special: for the surgeon who saved his career three years ago.
“I was very happy to invite him here today, with his grandchildren and nephews,” van Nistelrooy said.
“I was happy to score because he was there. I wanted to show him I am fit.”
The match in Los Angeles on Sunday was little but a pre-season warmup on a nakedly commercial tour of the land of Manchester United's main sponsor – but the earth moved for some among the 57,000 crowd in the L.A. Coliseum.
Once van Nistelrooy had scored, as he routinely has more than 80 times in real competition these past two years, United eased to a 3-1 victory over America of Mexico City. Once that was done, the Dutchman greeted his doctor in the changing room.
Dr Richard Steadman, a veteran of 10,000 knee surgeries and a man whose knife is as well known as many of the football, basketball and tennis players, skiers and global soccer stars he has opened up, is accustomed to gratitude.
The legends are just lesions under the scalpel of Steadman. He earns as much as many of them do with his steady hand, experienced eye and soothing insistence that rehabilitation is as much the key to repairing human joints as a surgeon's intervention.
Yet Steadman did something Sunday he had not done before in his 65 years. He attended a top-level soccer game. He watched van Nistelrooy score. He also saw Roy Keane, the United warrior captain in action as he returns after hip surgery.
Though Keane is also a player who has gloried, in his autobiography, in maiming a fellow professional player.
On the same weekend that van Nistelrooy made such a public point of thanking his surgeon, Alf Inge Haaland, the opponent Keane kicked in controlled anger, was finally conceding that he would never manage top class sport again.
Haaland had followed the familiar sportsman's and woman's trail to Vail, Colorado, where Steadman practices. The Norwegian's knee had suffered more damage than the boot of Keane managed to inflict. Unlike Ronaldo and Juninho (Brazil), Alan Shearer and Jamie Redknapp (England), Alessandro Del Piero (Italy), Lothar Matthaus and Sebastian Deisler (Germany), Patrick Berger (Czech Republic) and enough top class soccer players to form a world squad, Haaland was lost to the sport.
While he might be a stranger to soccer, Steadman is familiar with soccer players' knees.
His work has included pioneering procedures to reconstruct cruciate ligaments. He was the first to remove diseased tissue and replace it with grafts of human tissue, or synthetic cartilage developed from cattle tendons. Van Nistelrooy may not know that his doctor held an audience of the Annual Surgical Forum in San Francisco spellbound in 1996 when he lectured for hours on research into replacing degenerative fibrous material in the joints of horses.
Van Nistelrooy told his “savior” Sunday how he had arrived in Colorado with two wishes.
First, recalled the Dutchman, “I wanted to be able to walk normal again.” Then, he hoped to play soccer again, at any level.
He is playing, at times like a man possessed, in a fashion that convinces even the moneymen at Manchester United that no sum could tempt them to sell.
Peter Kenyon, United's chief executive, reiterated Sunday that van Nistelrooy is the one irreplaceable player on the club books.
The striker cost £19mil, paid after the operation. His words written on a portrait sent to Colorado two years ago summed up how vulnerable, and how thankful, a wounded sportsman becomes: “Thank you,” he wrote to Dr Steadman, “for giving me back my dream.”
Americans, of course, spread the word on their good doctor.
Picabo Street and Tamara McKinney, daredevil downhill ski racers, became almost habitual callers on his services, not because he did an incomplete job, but because their reckless endeavors pushed the bounds of competitive skiing.
The skiing brothers Phil and Steve Mahre are on the Vail role of honour, as are Martina Navratilova, the tennis champion, and Dan Marino, a former National Football League quarterback.
Indeed, Steadman dabbled with Marino's game before turning to medicine. In the late 19 50s, in his home state of Texas, Richard Steadman was granted a scholarship by the renowned coach Paul (Bear) Bryant. When the young lineman failed to make the team, his parents suggested he study for a career in healing.
He began on $200 a month as a resident at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. Through his love of sports, and the American ethic of never being afraid to ask for the reward you think you are worth, he has lived for 30 years on the kind of millions some of his clients have been lucky to earn for a third of that span.
The tie-up between sport and medicine has been rewarding in more ways than mere words can express.
“I feared for my future,” said Shearer, the Newcastle United and former England captain.
“I made up my mind to travel anywhere in the world to find the right man. Just when I was getting frustrated with the pain - he took it away.”
The doctor might not have seen Shearer play, but he is a brute of a center forward and is still as competitive as van Nistelrooy. _ IHT