Eden Hazard and the football superstars whose careers were ruined by injury
Eden Hazard to Real Madrid was a transfer a decade in the making, with long-time admirer Zinedine Zidane finally convincing Florentino Perez to sing the Belgian in 2018. Unfortunately, Hazard did not prove worth the wait. He turned up for pre-season overweight, and things quickly went downhill from there.
A player who had rarely been injured at Chelsea was suddenly plagued by problems, and Hazard admitted in 2021 that it was unlikely that he would ever again be the winger wizard that had torn up the Premier League, after fracturing his ankle on three separate occasions. And so it proved.
Hazard managed just 54 league games and four goals in four years at the Bernabeu, with his torrid spell in Spain perhaps best summed up by the fact that he never made a single appearance in a Clasico. The worst thing is that there was never much sympathy for Madrid's €120m man, even among his team-mates.
While confirming that his contract had been terminated by mutual consent a year ahead of schedule, Los Blancos pointed out that Hazard had won eight titles with the club. But, truth be told, he played next-to-no role in any of them. Hazard could have gone down as one of the greatest signings in Real's history, he'll instead be remembered as one of their worst.
Of course, he's hardly the first top-class talent to be prevented from realising his full potential by fitness problems, as GOAL outlines below...
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#13 Jonathan Woodgate
Woodgate's Real Madrid debut is obviously the stuff of footballing infamy: after spending the first 17 months of his spell at Santiago Bernabeu sidelined by injury, the English defender belatedly introduced himself to the club's supporters with an own goal and a red card for a second bookable offence.
However, there's a reason why Madrid had taken a gamble on Woodgate in the first place: he was, when fully fit, an excellent centre-back - he had proved that during the early days of his breakthrough at Leeds United.
Unfortunately, he never stayed fit long enough to make the most of his obvious ability. There were some highlights along the way, most notably the winning goal for Tottenham in their League Cup win over Chelsea in 2008, but it's telling that he only played 30 or more league games twice between 2000 and 2016.
What really killed him, though, was being restricted to just 14 appearances for Madrid. "When I look back on my career, that gets to me, more than anything," he told the Under the Surface podcast. "Because you’re on the biggest stage... And my body let me down."
#12 Yoann Gourcuff
After Gourcuff had inspired Bordeaux to a league-and-cup double in 2009, L'Equipe labelled the attacking midfielder 'Le Successeur', Zinedine Zidane's undisputed heir.
Even one of Zizou's former team-mates agreed. "I felt ill when Zidane retired," Christophe Dugarry admitted. "Watching Gourcuff has cured me." Unfortunately, there was no remedy for Gourcuff's many mental and physical issues.
By the time of his rebirth at Bordeaux, he had already flopped at AC Milan, Paolo Maldini argued, because "there was a problem with his behaviour", with the iconic defender castigating the Frenchman for failing to make any kind of effort to integrate.
After then making a historic move to Lyon in 2010, Gourcuff was plagued by injuries, some of which it was argued were psychosomatic. Certainly, some of his coaches and team-mates were never fully convinced by the severity of some of the ailments, which included hurting his hand after getting high-fived by Alexandre Lacazette, and spraining his ankle while walking his dog.
In the end, one of France's finest prospects retired at 34 - after more than a year without a club.
#11 Abou Diaby
Both Arsenal and France fans were so excited by Diaby's form during his first six months in north London. They all felt that they had 'The new Patrick Vieira' on their hands.
Unfortunately, Diaby never hit those heights. In injury-time at the end of a 3-0 win at Sunderland in May 2006, the midfielder was on the receiving end of a horrendous and completely unnecessary challenge from Dan Smith. Diaby was left screaming on the pitch in agony, having suffered a severe ankle fracture that would require three operations and eight months of rehabilitation.
Diaby eventually returned in January 2007, but not at the same level and ultimately spent more than half of his remaining years at Arsenal sidelined by injury, with former manager Arsene Wenger subsequently stating on beIN Sports that his compatriot's hopes of reaching the very pinnacle of the profession had been "destroyed" by "an assassin's tackle".
#10 Louis Saha
Sir Alex Ferguson essentially admitted that he signed Louis Saha from Fulham primarily because every time the Frenchman faced Manchester United, "he gave us a doing".
"Of all the centre-forwards we employed," the legendary manager later wrote in his autobiography, "when you talk about their talents (two-footed, good in the air, spring, speed, power), Saha would be one of the best. He posed a perpetual threat."
Only when fully fit, though. Saha made a sensational start to his Old Trafford career, showing exactly why United had agreed to pay £12.4 million ($15.5m) for his services by scoring seven times in his first 14 appearances.
However, then the injuries began to arrive and Saha felt so bad about his regular spells on the sidelines that he used to text Ferguson apologising for his absences. The Scot was sympathetic to Saha's plight, but eventually allowed Saha to join Everton in 2008.
Ferguson explained, "The reason for selling him was that no matter how talented he was, I could never plan around him."
#9 Jack Wilshere
On July 8, 2022, Jack Wilshere announced his retirement. A prodigious talent who had made his Arsenal debut at just 16 years of age, breaking a record previously held by Cesc Fabregas, had been forced to call time on his career while still only 30.
Wilshere had been 'active' in the game for more than a decade but, in truth, he had never fully recovered from the stress ankle fracture he had suffered during a pre-season friendly in 2011.
After more than a year out of action, there were flashes of the player that Fabio Capello had described as "the future" of English football, but he continually struggled for form and fitness. He was eventually allowed to leave Arsenal for nothing in 2018 - which would have been unthinkable when he was wowing the Emirates as a tenacious teenager with a wonderful range of passing.
As Wilshere later lamented, "I didn't ever reach my full potential as a player and everyone knows that. It’s a difficult thing to accept."
#8 Thiago Alcantara
Pep Guardiola requested the signing of just one player after taking over at Bayern Munich in 2013: Thiago Alcantara. “Thiago or nothing,” the Catalan told his Bavarian bosses.
It’s easy to understand why: Thiago is tremendously talented. However, he's also frustratingly fragile, which is why Jurgen Klopp admitted in 2022 that he didn't want to lavish too much praise on the Spain international "because when I do, something happens". Namely, an injury.
The Champions League winner is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most gifted playmakers of his generation, a mesmeric midfielder capable of picking out a team-mate with every type of pass from every possible position.
However, he's also terribly injury-prone. In just one season during his career has he managed to appear in 30 league games - a staggering and saddening statistic, given what he brings to each and every game he graces.
#7 Mario Gotze
Gotze might not have proved he was better than Lionel Messi in the 2014 World Cup final - as Germany boss Joachim Low asked him to do - but he certainly upstaged him in Rio, netting the winning goal shortly after coming on as a substitute.
At the time, the attacking midfielder was just 22 years of age - he appeared to have a stellar career ahead of him. However, things quickly went wrong for Gotze.
As he later admitted, he made a massive mistake by leaving Borussia Dortmund for Bayern Munich in the summer of 2013. Of even greater detriment to his development, though, was a rare and very difficult-to-detect metabolism disorder that was responsible for the recurring muscular problems that repeatedly restricted his game time.
However, despite the belated diagnosis, and a return to Dortmund, Gotze, who is now plying his trade at Eintracht Frankfurt, has been unable to make the most of the talent that prompted Jurgen Klopp to describe him as the best young player he's ever coached.
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#6 Paul Pogba
On May 14, 2023, Paul Pogba made his first start since rejoining Juventus the previous summer. Sadly, he lasted just 23 minutes because of a thigh problem, the midfielder exiting the pitch with his jersey pulled over his head to try hide his tears.
It was subsequently confirmed that a season that never really got going for Pogba was over, and there are growing concerns that the 30-year-old may never again be the player he was during his first spell in Turin.
Indeed, it is worth pointing out that while there were obvious tactical reasons for the Frenchman flopping at previous club Manchester United, his time at Old Trafford was also punctuated by regular spells on the sidelines with a variety of muscular and ankle issues that undoubtedly hindered his attempts to prove himself the best player on the planet, which he undoubtedly had the ability to do.
His critics will doubtless point to off-field distractions and a perceived lack of professionalism as contributing factors to his sad decline but it's still not hard to feel some degree of sympathy for Pogba's current predicament, given the way in which injuries have held him back. He may have won a World Cup, but he clearly could have achieved so much more.
In Adriano, Inter appeared to have found a ready-made successor to Ronaldo. Just like his fellow Brazilian, 'The Emperor' was an imposing mix of physique and technique - a "pure animal", as Zlatan Ibrahimovic enthused, "who could score from every angle".
Unfortunately, after a stunning start to life at San Siro, the striker's career - and indeed his life - went off the rails. Why? Injuries coupled with the devastating loss of his father.
As the man himself so poignantly put it himself in a piece for The Players' Tribune, "What happened to Adriano? Brother, it's simple. I have a hole in my ankle, and one in my soul."
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#4 Marco Reus
Reus was named after Marco van Basten, which was a touching tribute to one of the game's greats, but also arguably an ominous omen, given the Dutchman's iconic career was cruelly cut short by injury.
In truth, though Reus is still playing at 33, he has suffered even more misfortune than his namesake, with incessant injury issues having stopped the German from getting anywhere close to making the most of his incredible talent.
The attacker has missed a succession of major international tournaments and seen club campaigns decimated by his depressing inability to stay fit. During one of his many spells on the sidelines, Reus admitted to GQ, "I would give away all the money to be healthy again, to be able to do my job, to do what I love, to play football.
"As top players, we earn a lot of money, but sometimes we pay a hefty price with our health." Reus is arguably the best example of that sad fact.
#3 Michael Owen
Owen was just 21 when he lifted the Ballon d'Or. And he fully expected to win at least one more. However, even at a point in his career when he looked perfectly poised to break every record in English football, the jet-heeled forward was "petrified" of running at full speed, having torn his hamstring during a game against Leeds two years previously.
He later admitted that he would have preferred to have suffered a broken leg on that fateful night at Elland Road, as the physical and mental scars would have been easier to overcome.
"Once I [pulled the hamstring] for the first time, I was gone really," Owen told BT Sport. "I was quick, running in channels, beating people. That's who I was - compared to the last six or so years when I turned into the only thing I could."
Which was still a pretty decent forward in fairness, just not the thrilling teenage talent that illuminated the 1998 World Cup in France with one of the greatest solo strikes the game has ever seen.
A pair of Ballons d'Or, a European Golden Shoe, a World Cup winners' medal - Ronaldo had one hell of a career. But it could have been even better, because he could have been even better, at least for a longer period of time. He was just 23 years of age when he suffered the first of two terrible knee injuries at Inter that effectively sidelined him for three seasons.
Ronaldo recovered - but not fully. He still top-scored at Korea-Japan 2002, propelling Brazil to victory with eight goals. But the player that received a standing ovation after scoring a hat-trick at Old Trafford in 2003 just wasn't the same 'Fenomeno' that had utterly tormented the great Alessandro Nesta in the 1998 UEFA Cup final. The former Lazio defender called it "the worst experience of my life" and it was easy to understand why.
With his pace, power and ridiculous array of skills, that version of 'R9' was simply unstoppable, the most electrifying centre-forward of all time. For all he subsequently achieved, then, it's still not hard to sometimes wonder what might have been had it not been for the knee injuries...
#1 Marco van Basten
Marco van Basten is a legend of the game, the most complete No.9 in football history. He was both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals - important ones too, as so perfectly illustrated by his logic-defying volley in Netherlands' European Championship final win over the Soviet Union in 1988.
However, in August 1995, Van Basten announced his retirement from football because of a recurring ankle injury. He was still only 30 at the time, but hadn't played for two years, meaning the Dutch striker had essentially been robbed of his prime.
As a tearful Fabio Capello said of a man who had helped AC Milan win two European Cups under Arrigo Sacchi, "His early retirement was a mortal misfortune for him, and for football."