The Lonely Road Back From a Very Public Injury


“I thought something was wrong,” he said. “I knew I had to come out.”

A few minutes later, in the treatment area that sits on the other side of the wall from the first-team changing room at City’s Etihad Stadium, Sala’s on-field suspicion — a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament — was confirmed with a few cursory tests.

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Gundogan injured his right knee when he and Watford’s Nordin Amrabat collided during a match in December. He returned to the field briefly, but soon realized he could not continue.

Credit
Michael Steele/Getty Images.

Many athletes fear a torn A.C.L. more than any other injury. It is not as visibly painful, or as gruesome, as a broken bone, but it is much more menacing. Not so long ago, it was more often than not the end of a career; even now, many who suffer it find they are never quite the same.

Deep down, as Gundogan watched the second half of that December game against Watford on a laptop in silence, his knee packed in ice, he knew what was coming. He tried to be optimistic.

“People know what to do now,” he thought. “They know how to operate, how to do rehab, how long you are out.”

He had steeled himself for the worst. Now he just had to face it.

What he was facing, though, was intimidating. There would be the delicate hours of surgery, the endless days of rest, the long, slow weeks and months that would teach him first to walk, then to run, and finally to play again.

It would be painful, repetitive, exhausting. He would struggle to stave off the shadow of loneliness, to keep at bay the dread that in his absence from the team, from the spotlight, he would be forgotten. Most of all, he would have to learn to handle it all not as one of the team, but on his own, trapped on the other side of the wall.

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Gundogan wrapped his knee at the apartment where he stayed after having surgery in Barcelona. It was there, under the watchful eye of Arthur Jankowski, his fitness coach, that he began to gently exercise his knee.

Credit
Kieran Dodds for The New York Times

REPAIR

Dr. Ramon Cugat knows how to put players, in deep distress and full of fear, at ease. For years, his clinic at Barcelona’s Quiron Hospital has been the first port of call for high-profile victims of knee injuries. Cugat’s expertise has restored David Villa, Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta and a host of others to their former glories; his manner, as much as his success, has convinced others to follow in their wake.

Gundogan (pronounced GOON-doh-wahn) had worked with Cugat before he spoke to him in the days after the injury; Cugat had carried out an unrelated operation on Gundogan’s kneecap a few months earlier. He had been inclined to return to Cugat anyway. What clinched it was the story Cugat told him when they talked.

“He said that he had also operated on Xavi Hernández,” Gundogan said. “He said that after he had the operation, Xavi won every competition: the Spanish title, the Champions League, the World Cup, everything.”

That was enough. As soon as the swelling on his knee had subsided, Gundogan flew to Barcelona. On Friday, Dec. 23, nine days after his season ended and two before Christmas, he entered the hospital.

For such a major operation, the reconstruction of a cruciate ligament is surprisingly quick: just a couple of hours in theater, no general anesthetic. Gundogan’s whole lower body was numb, but, aside from the first few minutes, he was awake throughout. Cugat instructed his assistants to turn the video screen toward Gundogan, so that he could follow the process: two small incisions above and below the knee; the insertion of a tiny camera probe; the removal of part of his patella tendon, which was then fixed in place as a substitute for the A.C.L., completely torn and unrepairable.

“A lot of it was too complicated for me,” Gundogan said of the procedure. “I didn’t watch all the time, but they wanted me to watch. I still don’t know if that was a good thing. The most interesting thing was the camera coming out of the knee: I could see the screw.”

He stayed in the hospital for three days. It was 48 hours before he was allowed to stand up, but when he did, the pain was so intense he had to sit down immediately. The rehab work, though, began right away. His leg was packed in ice, as it had been in the hours after the injury, or blasted with cold air; he was put through a series of gentle movements to start to extend his range of motion. Gundogan referred to it as his “work.” This was his job now.

When he left the hospital, he repaired not to a hotel but to an apartment on Passeig de Gracia, found through a friend of the Barcelona midfielder Arda Turan. Gundogan stayed for a month. He felt less isolated here, more a part of things, looking out from his windows onto one of the city’s most stylish boulevards.

Gundogan, 26, is not especially loud or notably garrulous. Born to Turkish parents in the industrial German town of Gelsenkirchen, he jokes occasionally about his “Southern” nature — a passion and emotion rooted in his ancestry. But he is, in many ways, typically Teutonic. He is soft-spoken, calm, happy to blend into the background. Often, he sinks into his own thoughts, contented in his introversion.

He is most at ease, though, when he has company. He spends little time alone. His cousin Ilkan is often by his side — part companion, part assistant — and his friends and family visit regularly.

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