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Goal.com takes a look at some of the stars who have seen their progress stall later in their careers and ponder what might have been had they been a little more lucky

FEATURE
By Jonathan Birchall

Football, by its very nature, is a game of ‘what ifs’. From questionable penalty decisions to last day relegations, it is often twists of fate that can go on to define seasons and careers. However, the cruelest occurrence of all is surely when those on the brink of superstardom have their progress placed in jeopardy due to injury.

Countless tales of 'the next big thing' are too often consigned to history as a result, and even those players who battle through to overcome such problems are often a shadow of what their natural ability would allow if they had been a little luckier in avoiding a tweak or a tear.

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With the promotion of youth having come under the spotlight in recent years following the seamless integration of emerging talent into the all-conquering Barcelona side of Pep Guardiola, the pressure on youngsters is now greater than ever and, somewhat inevitably, so is the strain on their developing bodies.

Following an extensive study of 503 Bundesliga players that found younger footballers to be 66.8 per cent more likely to suffer serious injuries than their older team-mates, Goal.com have compiled a list of five stars whose careers suffered due to chronic injury problems, and speculate what might have been for those unfortunate enough to have been hampered at an early age.

SEBASTIAN DEISLER

Position: Winger

Clubs: Monchengladbach, Hertha BSC,
Bayern Munich



Injury:  Knee

Age at first injury:
19

Age at decline:
21

Age at retirement: 27

Games per season before decline:  21
Games per season after decline:  12
Deisler's career coupled phenomenal talent with personal turmoil. Seen by many as the last German with the ability to seriously contend for the Ballon d'Or, the man from Lorrach in the Wiese Valley emerged at the dawn of the new millennium as the nation's only youngster with the potential for global domination.

It wasn't to be, however, as a cruciate ligament rupture in 1999 was followed by a number of relapses up until and during his time at Bayern Munich, where his career would eventually come to an end. Under immense pressure at the Bundesliga's largest club as the nation waited with bated breath for their bright new hope to blossom into one of the world's great wingers, Deisler suffered from depression throughout his time in Bavaria, and was eventually forced to retire in 2007 with only 135 professional appearances under his belt.

PAULO FUTRE

Position: Winger

Clubs: Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Atletico Madrid, Benfica, Marseille, Reggiana,
AC Milan, West Ham, Yokohama Flugels

Injury: Knee

Age at first injury:
21

Age at decline:
26

Age at retirement: 32


Games per season before decline: 28
Games per season after decline:  10
Few players have been able to bring a crowd to their feet like Portuguese wing-wizard Paulo Futre. An international at 17, the left-footed wideman was near-unstoppable in full flight down the flank - as he showcased to stunning effect in Porto's 1987 European Cup final win over Bayern Munich. It was this blistering style of play that ignited the interest of Atletico Madrid, whom Futre joined after that success. It was to be a move with damaging consequences.

The relentless physicality of the Spanish game left Futre a shadow of his former self by the time he left La Liga in 1993, with knee trouble having taken away his famous turn of pace. Typically always on the bike, Futre travelled back to Portugal before a succession of ill-fated moves to Italy, England, Spain again, and then Japan concluded a career that should have offered so much more.
 
 MICHAEL OWEN

Position: Forward

Clubs: Liverpool,
Real Madrid, Newcastle, Manchester United



Injury: Hamstring

Age at first injury:
19

Age at decline:
25

Age at retirement: N/A

Games per season before decline: 38
Games per season after decline: 21
As the fleet-footed Owen sped past Argentinian duo Roberto Ayala and Jose Chamot before hammering home one of the great World Cup goals in Saint-Etienne in 1998, it appeared England had unearthed a truly world-class prodigy. Impressive spells at Liverpool and Real Madrid, in addition to a hat-trick away to Germany in 2001, only served to support the plaudits.

However, a decade after he lit up France '98, Owen was being derided in Newcastle as a waste of money. Having struggled with a chronic hamstring problem, the yard of pace that separated the striker from those around him had been sacrificed. Now a bit-part player at Manchester United, the injury stopped the forward becoming one of the greats. Nearly but not quite, Owen's plight has reflected in the Three Lions side he spearheaded for the best part of a decade.

RONALDO

Position: Forward

Clubs: Cruzeiro, PSV, Barcelona, Inter,
Real Madrid, AC Milan, Corinthians


Injury:  Knee

Age at first injury:
18

Age at decline:
29

Age at retirement: 34

Games per season before decline: 32
Games per season after decline: 17
It seems remarkable to consider a career that included two World Cup wins, spells at Barcelona, Real Madrid, both Milan clubs and three Fifa World Player of the Year awards as limited. But, such is the quality of Ronaldo. Arguably the greatest striker of all time, the Brazilian would surely take the title undisputedly if it wasn't for the knee tendon problems that ravaged his time at the top, and did what few defenders could - stop him in his tracks.

Speaking on his retirement earlier this year, El Fenomeno said: "It's very hard to leave something that made me so happy. Mentally I wanted to continue but I have to acknowledge that I lost to my body." It was an admission that proved despite performances that often suggested otherwise, the Brazilian was human after all.

NORMAN WHITESIDE

Position: Forward

Clubs:  Manchester United, Everton




Injury:  Knee

Age at first injury:
15

Age at decline:
24

Age at retirement: 26

Games per season before decline:  28
Games per season after decline:  12
Norman Whiteside broke Pele's record to become the youngest ever player to appear in a World Cup finals fixture in 1982 and less than 12 months later was the youngest ever goalscorer in an FA Cup final. Cruelly, those milestones were to prove the pinnacle of his career and less than a decade later, at the age of 26, the physically imposing striker was forced to retire for fear that he wouldn't walk again if he was to continue as a professional.

Sir Alex Ferguson said of the Northern Irishman: "As a player, he was close to the genius category." Who's to say that without the knee injury that plagued his career, Whiteside wouldn't have gone on to emulate fellow Belfast boy George Best and become one of Old Trafford's all-time greats.

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