A succession of knee injuries meant Simon Rolfes missed the 2010 World Cup - a nearly worst-case scenario for any footballer. He talked to Deutsche Welle about the ups and downs of trying to come back.
Rolfes is a big physical player with a good passing eye
Before there was Sami Khedira, there was Simon Rolfes.
The 28-year-old midfielder was originally the one tipped to take over the stopper role from ageing veteran Michael Ballack. But a meniscus injury in July 2009 ultimately stopped Rolfes in his tracks just as he was reaching the peak of his career.
Rolfes played through pain that fall. After all, his club, Bayer Leverkusen, was topping the table, and he had established himself as a regular in the German national side.
But by October he had developed articular cartilage damage and had no option but to have an operation. The problems didn't go away, and he was forced to go under the knife again in January and acknowledge that his dream of competing in South Africa was over.
“We were on a sensational run with Leverkusen and topping the table at the winter break,” Rolfes told Deutsche Welle. “My plan was to come back in the second half of the season and be a full part of the team, since the games I had played that season had been the best of my career. So, of course, the weeks following the January operation were really hard. I realized I wasn't going to play any role at all either in the Bundesliga season or the World Cup.”
A slow but steady developer, Rolfes had become an international caliber midfielder. Now he was forced to watch Khedira take on a role in the German squad that he himself would have probably occupied, had he not been hurt.
Khedira performed well in South Africa and landed a deal with Real Madrid. Meanwhile, Rolfes was just trying to regain his basic fitness.
Rolfes had been getting regular starts for Germany
In one respect, Rolfes has been lucky. The injuries he suffered have ended many a footballer's career.
But rehab work, to hear him describe it, is a total slog, and it is difficult for a top athlete to acknowledge that, through no fault of one's own, one is not at the level one was just a few months before.
“It takes time to accept and start looking forward again,” Rolfes said. “After the operation I was on crutches for eight weeks…and it hardly a lot of fun to lie around at home, exercising your leg or knee with a machine for six hours a day and watching your muscles virtually disappear.”
Rolfes also said that when he was able to work out with a football again, it was hard at first to commit to challenges. Overcoming fear, he said, came gradually as he got used to playing scrimmages in training sessions.
“It's such a long process, and in the beginning you can't imagine yourself being on the pitch again,” Rolfes remembered. “But step for step, they bring you along, and then at some point it's over. You get your confidence back in practice.”
Practice, in this case, doesn't make perfect. It gives a player the chance to regain what he's lost.
Coming back from a knee injury takes lots of hard, boring work
Rolfes made his Bundesliga comeback in late September, and so far, he's been pretty good.
Last month, he scored a pair of goals to help Leverkusen beat Wolfsburg, even though he only came on as a late substitute. And perhaps more encouragingly, he's played for a full 90 minutes in his last two games.
He also provided the assist for Leverkusen's lone goal in their win agaist St. Pauli on the weekend, which took the team up to second in the Bundesliga standings.
But will he ever be able to recapture the status he once had with Germany head coach Joachim Loew? Competition for spots in the midfield is fierce, with not even nominal team captain Michael Ballack being assured of making the squad.
Rolfes draws hope from the very vagaries of football that put him out of commission for much of 2009 and 2010.
“A year ago, no one would have thought that Bastian Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira would be the central midfielders at the World Cup,” Rolfes said. “And likewise, no one knows what's going to happen in two or three years' time. There's always the possibility of injuries and other circumstances. So you shouldn't concentrate on whether it's difficult or not.”
And Rolfes doesn't need to look far to find an example of hope. His teammate at Leverkusen, striker Patrick Helmes, was also knocked out of Germany's World Cup squad by an injury, but has gotten a call-up to play in the Nationalelf's friendly against Sweden this coming Wednesday.
So even though Rolfes has dropped off the radar screen of many casual Germany fans, it wouldn't be all that surprising to find him on the plane when Yogi and Co. travel to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, or even the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Simon Rolfes was interviewed by Kamilla Jarzina for DW-TV's Bundesliga Kick Off program.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Chuck Penfold