From Beckham's left foot to Rooney's hairline fracture: the injured metatarsal has become a metaphor for England's dashed sporting hopes.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

When he briefly lit up Euro 2004 he was heralded as the White Pele, the Shrek-faced saviour of English football. But since he went from football prodigy to serial toe-breaker, the name Wayne Rooney has become a euphemism for injury, as in ‘Jesus, I think I’ve Roonied my big toe’, or ‘Bleedin’ hell, my ankle’s Wayned good and proper’.

We initially thought the red mist might be Rooney’s undoing – as illustrated by his stamp on Richard Carvalho’s knackers – but we didn’t reckon on his foot being even more brittle than his temperament. Rooney’s latest injury isn’t the classic metatarsal fracture but a new variant football injury, ‘a hairline fracture of the foot’ to quote Sir Alex Ferguson. I don’t know about you but I’m not entirely satisfied by that description. I have it on good authority (ie, a Google search) that there are 29 bones in each foot. If it’s not a metatarsal that’s cracked, then which bone is it? Damn it, we’re grown-ups and should be told the truth. We want to know the proper Latin term, too, not just some dumbed-down kiddies’ version like ‘little pinky’.

Rooney’s broken foot might be bad news for English football but it’s great news for podiatrists whose expert opinions on causation and the player’s likely recovery time are hugely in demand. The latest injury isn’t, strictly speaking, a broken metatarsal but it hasn’t prevented the metatarsalisation of the public sphere. Last week we were preoccupied with Foot and Mouth, this week’s it’s ‘Foot and Out’, as a tortuously contrived tabloid caption put it. The injury, which puts the striker out of England’s forthcoming Euro 2008 qualifiers, has plunged the nation back into yet another bout of foot-related grief.

The Germans would have already invented a compound word to explain this phenomenon. Something like Rooneyfußtrauer (Rooney foot mourning) or Fußballzehenkummer (Soccer toe grief) perhaps. In England we just dream up lots of toe-curlingly awful tabloid puns (‘Rooney in ruins’, ‘Russian Roolette’, etc). But we really do need a serious sociological phrase to capture the contemporary British fixation with sporting injuries. The phrase ‘broken metatarsal’ no longer just connotes a simple toe injury; it has become the iconic sports injury of our times, a metaphor for dashed English sporting hopes and broken dreams. The very mention of the word ‘metatarsal’ makes us wince with pain. It reminds us of how this once-mighty nation of sporting invincibles has degenerated into a bedraggled collection of tearful, fragile-footed penalty-bottlers.

If we’re not huddling around the water cooler feverishly discussing broken foot prognostics, we’re searching for meaning in this flukish accident. When David Beckham pioneered the fashion for metatarsal injuries in 2002, there was a bit of tabloid hounding of Aldo Duscher, the Argentina defender who tackled Beckham when he broke his foot. But this was largely tongue-in-cheek stuff. Most of us accepted that it was just rank bad luck. But now we are not so sure. As one England player after another has succumbed to foot injuries – Gary Neville, Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Ashley Cole, Ledley King, and now Rooney for the third time – we have started to cast around for theories to explain this spooky sequence of events.

Firstly, there’s the ‘Boots ain’t wot they used to be’ school of thought. When Rooney broke his toe last year, former Manchester United manager Tommy Docherty blamed flimsy modern boots. ‘When I played in the 1950s, you used to get a pair of boots and take six weeks to break them in; you put them in a bucket of water’. Blackburn manager Mark Hughes echoed the Doc’s sentiments this week. ‘The vast majority of boots when I played were leather with laces down the middle. Now the laces are on the back, the side and underneath, all over the place’, said Hughes. ‘Some of the materials that are being used do not seem to be of the correct solidity or substance as there have been a lot of injuries.’ Nike, makers of Rooney’s Total 90 Laser boots, denied that their footwear was unsafe. ‘We’re positive and Wayne’s positive the boot has nothing to do with it’, said Nike’s UK spokesman Charlie Brooks. ‘Nearly 20 per cent of the professional players in the Barclays Premier League in action this weekend were wearing this boot.’

Another popular hypothesis is that ‘footballers ain’t wot they used to be’ due to the rigours of the modern game. Podiatrist Wayne Edwards thinks that intensive training from an early age is a significant factor. ‘It’s probably something to do with training levels that people are going through at the moment, the amount of time they are actually playing’, suggested Edwards. ‘These young lads…are taken on from 14 upwards into the academies and they are put through quite rigorous, adult-level training sessions.’

Dr Craig Panther, Fulham’s chief medical officer, believes that a combination of factors might be responsible. ‘Common sense says harder pitches, increasing training schedules and more flexible boots play some part’, said Panther. ‘But it is probably lots of factors combined: position, ground, time of year, boot design, even playing style.’ West Ham’s medical officer, Gus Steinbergs, also thinks there may be ‘multifactorial’ reasons for these injuries.

I’m a little surprised that the eco-conspiracy theorists haven’t identified a putative link between carbon emissions and broken metatarsals. One of my work colleagues suggested that Margaret Thatcher was to blame because she abolished free school milk in the 1970s and thereby undermined the bone density of future generations. It was, of course, a joke but it’s no less speculative than any of the theories advanced by medical experts. The ‘multifactorial’ thesis, for example, sounds impressive but suggests to me that the experts don’t really have a clue so they’re hedging their bets. Is there any evidence behind any of these theories? The answer is that there isn’t any. Zero. Nada. Not a sodding sausage. These explanations are all entirely guesswork.

Gus Steinbergs has now begun the first ever study of English footballers’ toe injuries. Perhaps his research will solve the riddle of the metatarsal. But then again it might not. The Football Association says that there has been no increase in toe injuries over the last five seasons, with between 22 to 28 injuries each year. Steve Nance, Fulham’s strength and conditioning coach, concurs. ‘People have been breaking their metatarsals for years’, said Nance. ‘I can’t see any trend in it being more or less common.’ If the rate of toe injuries hasn’t increased over the years, this suggest that Rooney’s injury was not the fault of flimsy boots, excessive training schedules, harder pitches, or even Maggie Thatcher, but was nothing more than a freakish accident.

‘He’s just been very unlucky’, says Steve Nance. ‘Unlucky’ – now there’s a word you don’t hear very often these days. Nobody seems to believe in accidents any more. Someone must be to blame. For example, it is becoming increasingly common for injured footballers to sue opponents for reckless tackles. In this instance, as Michael Duberry’s challenge was clearly unintentional, the blame-hunt has focused instead on more systemic causes.

Rooney is young. His injury is not career threatening. His foot will recover. The more pressing question, however, is this: Will our society ever recover from its compulsive desire to find meaning in accidents?

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist

Read on: spiked issue: Sport

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