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‘Heart’ of the matter

india Updated: Aug 27, 2009 23:30 IST
John Dykes
John Dykes
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Here’s a football trivia question for you: name the team which began its La Liga campaign last season with only one point and one goal from its opening two matches, making it the worst start for 35 years?

That’s right, folks, the answer is Barcelona, whose most sluggish start to a campaign since 1973-74 prompted goal.com to report that “an inquest into their inability to hit the target is underway in Catalunya”.

Nine months later, that inquest had become a celebration. Barca won the league with a record 87 points from 38 games, scoring 105 goals — just two short of the La Liga record. They even overcame a late-season blip, which saw them win only one league match in seven. At the time, midfielder Xavi Hernandez felt compelled to issue the following statement: “People love to talk about a crisis but we are in the semifinals of the Champions League. What sort of crisis is that?”

We love a crisis in football, don’t we? English newspapers virtually branded Liverpool a “crisis club” this week after a sloppy showing by senior players against Aston Villa saw a 31-game unbeaten home run come to an end. It was a second defeat in just three matches and it means the Reds have now lost as many games as they did in the whole of last season. Yet Liverpool drew 11 games last season and still finished second.

At the other end of the hyperbolic scale, by winning three on the bounce Tottenham Hotspur have now made their best start to the season since 1960-61 when they won their first 11 league matches and went on to claim a League and FA Cup double. The press have already asked manager Harry Redknapp how his team measures up to the class of ‘61.

Hilarious. It’s as if we media people seek to make up for a summer of inactivity by exploding into knee-jerk sensationalism. On a far more serious note, all this early-season overreaction has overshadowed something which might genuinely be regarded as a “crisis” facing football: a spate of deaths or health-scares among top-flight footballers which have been attributed to cardiac problems.

Earlier this month, Espanyol’s 26-year-old captain Dani Jarque collapsed and died following a pre-season training session in Italy.

His death came two years after that of Sevilla’s 22-year-old Antonio Puerta in similar circumstances. Spain and Real Madrid midfielder Ruben de la Red also collapsed during a match last October. He survived but has not played a game since.

Two French players will definitely never play again after they arguably got lucky. Former Caen striker Steve Savidan was about to make a dream switch to Monaco when a medical test revealed a heart condition. Savidan is in no doubt that he made the right decision.

Last year, Lilian Thuram, France’s most capped player, announced his retirement at the age of 36, citing a heart condition that stopped him from moving to Paris Saint-Germain.

While they have been able to retire after successful careers with their health intact, those still playing the game admit to being worried.

“It’s strange there are so many cases in such a short space of time. It makes you think it could happen to anyone,” said Villarreal midfielder Santi Cazorla.

Sevilla goalkeeper and captain Andres Palop recently admitted, “It starts to worry you. We do tests and medicals but it isn’t possible to detect these cases.” Two years ago, UEFA called for all professional players to have a heart test before the start of each season.

In 1982, the Italians started screening all 12- to 35-year-olds who planned to participate in strenuous competitive sport.