The timely return of Alexia Putellas means the best player on the planet will feature at the Women’s World Cup but a host of leading names will miss the party in Australia and New Zealand due to an ongoing plague of serious knee injuries.
Spain’s Putellas, 29, missed last year’s European Championship in England after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
She spent over nine months out but retained the Women’s Ballon d’Or and The Best FIFA Women’s Player award while absent before returning in April.
Putellas then played a part in Barcelona’s recent UEFA Champions League triumph and has since come back into the Spain team in time for their World Cup campaign.
She is one of the lucky ones.
Holders the United States are diminished by the loss of Mallory Swanson to a torn patella tendon in her left knee, while midfielder Catarina Macario did not overcome a torn ACL in time.
European champions England are without star striker Beth Mead and defender Leah Williamson, their captain, as both recover from a ruptured ACL.
Vivianne Miedema, the prolific Netherlands striker and Mead’s partner, is missing too, having been out with the same injury since December.
France’s hopes were hit by the loss of Delphine Cascarino, the French league’s best player last season, to a partial rupture of her right ACL.
Prolific striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto did not make the squad after missing all of last season with a knee injury.
Olympic champions Canada are without Janine Beckie, the ex-Manchester City player now with Portland Thorns.
The World Cup will be a poorer spectacle without them, and the issue has led to much soul-searching as to what is causing these injuries.
“It’s an injury that can depend on many things,” Putellas said in an interview with global players’ union FIFPro.
“It is only relatively recent that women’s players have started to become professionals, and there has hardly been time to carry out these types of studies and learn a little more about the body of women’s footballers.”
Female players have not just suddenly become vulnerable to knee injuries that can rule them out for many months.
“The fact that females are at seriously higher risk than guys playing football has been recognised for a long time,” Gordon Mackay, a Scottish knee surgeon, told AFP.
“It is multi-factorial, but there are lots of things that contribute to the risk factors,” he said, citing the need to train on the right surfaces and have footwear geared specifically for women.
Mackay put the incidence of ACL injuries in female players at “four times at least, maybe six times” that of males and says pelvic shape is also a contributing factor.
Hormonal changes related to the menstrual cycle have been mentioned too as potentially increasing the risk.
“It is very hard to address the fact there is biomechanically a bit of a gender difference,” Mackay added.
The focus is therefore on prevention.
One recent study by researchers in England suggested that kits and balls, as well as boots, needed to be better tailored towards women to optimise on-pitch safety.
Sportswear giant Adidas, one of the main kit providers for teams at the World Cup, said it takes the issue “incredibly seriously”.
“We have a long-standing legacy in designing product by, with and for women athletes,” it said when contacted by AFP.
“Collaboration ensures our products are built for women, from concepting to testing.”
This World Cup will be the first to feature 32 teams as the sport continues to grow.
It is just a shame that a huge month for women’s football will go ahead without so many big names.
“Not consistently having the best players on the pitch, particularly during the biggest moments the sport has to offer, also affects our game’s ability to continuously leverage its growing popularity,” acknowledged Alex Culvin, a former player and now FIFPro‘s head of strategy and research.
For the sidelined players themselves, the pain of injury may almost be matched by the hurt of watching without taking part.
“It’s difficult to see all the excitement around the tournament,” Beckie told Canada’s TSN 690 radio.
“I am so excited for the tournament and for all these amazing players to have this platform to showcase their talent but at the same time it is difficult to swallow that I won’t be there.”
POST AUTHOR: AFP