From Didier Drogba to Arjen Robben, a handful of top footballers are doubtful for the 2010 FIFA World Cup after hurting themselves in practice matches. So it must be asked: are friendlies really worth the risk?
Arjen Robben is working with physios to try to recover
It's the dilemma faced by every national team coach. They want the members of their squad, who come from various clubs, to get experience playing together, but they don't want players at key positions pulling muscles and breaking bones in meaningless matches.
Senseless injuries picked up just before the start of major tournaments are every coach's nightmare. And there was no better example than the one superstar Dutch winger Arjen Robben suffered over the weekend.
In the dying minutes of a friendly against Hungary, which the Netherlands were leading 6-1, the Bayern Munich winger attempted an overly fancy back-heeled pass. He fell to the ground holding his thigh, and a muscle tear means he will almost certainly miss his team's first World Cup matches.
"I would rather lose this match and have Arjen stay fit," Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said on a Dutch website.
Ivorian main man Drogba is another "friendly" victim
Ivory Coast coach Sven-Goran Eriksson can commiserate. He saw his top striker Didier Drogba break an elbow earlier in the week in a practice game against Japan. Drogba has since undergone surgery but whether he can play in the World Cup, and how effective he could be, remains unclear.
Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo and Slovakian defender Martin Skrtl are two other mainstays for their respective national teams who came away from final preparation matches with injuries that could keep them out of the tournament itself.
Perhaps it's just accidental, but the prevalence of players going down has some teams reconsidering their pre-tournament regimens.
Avoiding "the curse"
Soccer being a contact sport, players can also get hurt in practice, as England captain Rio Ferdinand, who will miss the World Cup, did in a kick-around last week.
And footballers being a superstitious lot, they tend to see patterns in incidents that are probably random. Ahead of this World Cup, there has been talk of a "Chelsea curse," as not only Drogba may miss the tournament. Germany's Michael Ballack, Ghana's Mickael Essien and Nigeria's John Obi Mikel - all of whom also play for the Premier League side - are definitely out.
This hasn't been a good month for Chelsea players (from left: Ballack, Mikel, Essien, Drogba)
With danger lurking everywhere, players for the Spanish national side say that one of their main goals in World Cup preparation has been to prevent anything bad from happening.
"The aim of our training camp, apart from finding our rhythm and learning ideas and tactics, is not to get injured," Spain forward Juan Mata told reporters at a Sunday press conference at the team's training camp outside Madrid. "There are important players who are not going to be at the World Cup and let's hope it doesn't happen to us."
"The truth is: yes, it's worrying," seconded Spain defender Joan Capdevila.
With this in mind, it's debatable how much value friendlies or even practices can have, as long as players are consciously not giving it their all. So in addition to exercising caution, players also put their faith in modern medicine.
Quick recovery conundrum
Rooney made a "miracle" comeback for the 2006 Cup
Amazingly, given the nature of their injuries, both Robben and Drogba think they still have a chance to show their stuff in South Africa.
"It's a small muscle tear in my left thigh," Robben told a Dutch TV station on Monday, June 7. "With a conservative therapy, the muscle would need four to six weeks to heal. So other means are necessary."
The oft-injured Robben did not say what those means were, but he stressed that he had never hurt that particular muscle before. He said he would be treated by physiotherapist Dick van Toorn, who enjoys a cult following among Dutch players for the speed at which he gets them back to full fitness.
A number of footballers, including England striker Wayne Rooney, have made seemingly impossibly quick recoveries from injuries in recent years - leading many skeptics to question whether quick-fix treatments might lead to players to getting hurt more often in the long run.
Given footballers' limited chances to play in big tournaments during their relatively short careers, it's easy to understand why they would accept health risks in an attempt to win a race against time.
In Robben's case, the winger says he hopes to be back kicking footballs around the middle of next week.
Meanwhile, those who aren't injured hope that they can stay that way for the next four days, until the World Cup competition begins on Friday.
Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Matt Hermann