The risk of injured players

ATROCIOUSLY fouled with a double footed tackle by the Argentine Aldo Duscher of Deportiva La Coruna at Old Trafford, David Beckham suffered a broken bone in his left foot which would take a few weeks to heal. Even if the most favourable prognosis were proved right, it would get desperately hard for him to be match fit in time for the ensuing World Cup. Which provoked debate over a player in such a condition could properly be risked in a major tournament and a look back over the past.

The case of Kevin Keegan was predictably remembered. Not least by those who, like myself, were present at the World Cup finals of 1982 in which he should arguably never have taken part at all and when he did, was arguably responsible for England failing to reach the semi-final stage, in Spain, with his abysmal headed miss in Madrid.

When England arrived in Bilbao for the opening group games, it was known that Keegan's injury was grave enough to threaten his participation. Indeed, it was noted that his whole gloomy, depressed demeanour was potentially having a demoralising effect on the rest of the squad. Eventually and surreptitiously, keeping the whole thing secret from the Press, the Football Association officials, Ted Croker, the FA Secretary prominent among them, sent Keegan back to Germany, where he had been playing for Hamburg, for an operation. He had it, came back, and agitated for a place in the team, which got as far as the second qualifying group, needing in its last match a win against the hosts, Spain, to qualify. Another leading figure, the midfield playmaker Trevor Brooking of West Ham United, had also been unavailable till this point, injured.

In the event, neither started the match against Spain though both were ultimately brought on, to very different avail. Brooking, in fact, gave new life, skill and direction to the England attack. But Keegan, when an easy chance fell to him in front of the Spanish goal, headed wide, quite feebly. The game thus ended 0-0 and England fell out of the competition without losing a game.

Four years later, in Mexico, there was the still more contentious question of Bryan Robson. Captain of the team and its most incisive force in midfield, Robson, before the tournament began or the team came to Mexico, was known to be suffering from a serially dislocated shoulder. When England in a warm-up match in Los Angeles played the Mexicans themselves, winning 4-1, it appeared that, falling, Robson had dislocated his shoulder once again. Bobby Robson, the team's manager, denied it.

Moreover, when the tournament began, in Monterrey, he insisted, against all logic and common sense, that "if it goes out easily, it will go back easily." Bobby himself, with his immense experience both as an international player and as the long time manager of Ipswich Town, must have known this was the utmost rubbish. Moreover he himself would admit later in his abysmal World Cup diary that he had told "a white lie" in Los Angeles, since Bryan's shoulder had in fact gone out there despite his denial. In fact when a shoulder keeps coming out of its socket, the only solution is an operation to secure it.

Not surprisingly Bryan gave a muted performance in the disastrous opening game against Portugal, while in the second game against Morocco when England were almost as bad, he fell, dislocated yet again and had to go off. This time even Bobby had to admit defeat and take Bryan out of a team which, reorganised without him and the disappointing Bay Wilkins, untypically sent off against Morocco, then took wing and got as far as the quarter-finals.

Why should Bobby have persisted in picking Bryan? He insisted that Bryan's effect on the team's morale was crucially important, but that has hardly a sufficient explanation for keeping so obviously vulnerable a player in the side. No convincing explanation has ever been advanced. I have my own views, but they are speculative and I'll keep them to myself.

In the 1954 World Cup, in Switzerland, arguably the kick which won it for Germany was the one which Warner Liebrich gave Ferenc Puskas, the formidable Hungarian inside-left and captain, when the teams yet in their second group game. A below strength Germany were thrashed 8-3, but the dazzling Hungarians, as strong favourites for the Cup as the Germans were outsiders, had to make do without Puskas and his explosive left foot all the way up to the final, in Berne. On the way, they defeated both the Brazilians and Uruguayans most impressively, but Puskas, a powerful personality, insisted he be included for the final, the team was consequently chopped and changed and he himself was all too plainly not yet match fit.

So it was that, despite going into an early 2-0 lead, the Hungarians went down 3-2. Though near the end, when Puskas raced through alone to beat the German 'keeper Turek for what would have been the equaliser, he was very disputably given offside.

In Italy in 1990, Diego Maradona, the inspiration of the Argentine team which had won the trophy in 1986, was so badly hurt that he went on playing virtually on one leg, doing his best to cope with the pain. This he did in the eliminator against a largely superior Brazilian team that he cleverly sent through Claudio Caniggia for the decisive goal. But by the time it came to the final in Rome against Germany, he was virtually walking wounded and Germany won that horribly repugnant game.

Maradona thus perhaps comprised a special case, but by and large, injured players should surely stay on the sidelines.