Fernando Hierro is not just one of the greatest defenders in Real Madrid’s history, if not the best, but he also has a great name, as Mr Hierro translates as Mr Iron in Spanish. Raphaël Varane, on the other hand, has a far less Herculean name. Translated into Spanish, he would be Mr Breaks Down.
Sadly, it is a fitting name for the French centre-back. Hierro himself may have said that there is no central defender in world football quite like Varane, but the 24-year-old Frenchman’s fragility is becoming increasingly problematic. Against Girona last weekend, Varane played an excellent first half for the Spanish and European champions and was one of the best performers on the pitch as they went into the break 1-0 up. However, he’d suffered a second significant injury of the season and the 14th of his six-year Real Madrid career, so had to be substituted off. Without him, Real Madrid went on to lose 2-1.
It all began in the spring of 2013, when he required meniscus repair surgery in his right knee. Varane was never the same again and, like a footballing piñata, he was always just waiting to burst, even if it hasn’t just been his knee that has bothered him. Pore over the Real Madrid medical records and you’ll find injuries to his calves, thighs, hamstrings and Achilles. There’s no logical explanation or pattern to them either. “He’s very tall and not very heavy, so it’s odd that he’s having so many problems at his young age with the physique that he has,” explained Rafael Alkorta, a former Real defender who also suffered recurring injuries in his career. Real Madrid have even changed their fitness and medical teams in recent years following a series of injuries, but even this hasn’t been able to hold Varane together.
Already he has missed 54 competitive matches during his Real Madrid career as a result of injury or, to put it another way, for every four he plays injury keeps him out of one. Worryingly, his name has featured on the capital city club’s medical report for well over a full calendar year, if you add up all his injury days.
In reality, Varane’s fragility has actually kept him out of significantly more matches. Of the 367 fixtures that Real Madrid have played since he arrived at the club, Varane has played 200, missing that total of 54 while on the injury list. While he was often left out for tactical reasons or because there was a better option available, such as Pepe, during his first seasons at the club, many of the other matches he has been absent for were down to him being left out as a precaution. So far in 2017 he has only played three times in a week in seven different weeks, a remarkably low tally for a member of a squad with such a busy fixture list. Not only that, but Varane regularly misses training sessions, with Zinedine Zidane keen to stockpile every last ounce of fitness in his countryman’s body.
These injury ordeals are all very reminiscent of former Tottenham captain Ledley King’s, another player who must have done something to offend the injury gods. Famously, the Englishman could only manage one match per week towards the end of his career, with Harry Redknapp also excusing him from virtually all pre-match training sessions, wanting to allow for a proper recovery period and to save those precious on-pitch minutes for competitive action, like Zidane does with Varane.
Like Varane, King also suffered the most from knee issues, but similarly racked up all kinds of niggles, tears and wounds, in all parts of his body. As Martin Jol once put it: “If it was the same injury over and over again, it would be a problem for him, but with Ledley it is different injuries. It was his left metatarsal, then his right foot and now his knee.”
Jol also went on to tell reporters that “King is my best player when he is fit” and it is a similar story with Varane at Real Madrid, in the sense that he is probably the club’s best defender when he is available – Sergio Ramos may be a better overall player, but Varane surely edges him when it comes to pure defensive impact. This is why Zidane and the various Spurs coaches over the years have been happy to do without their superstar defenders in training and in some less important matches, as they know and knew just how sweet that one sip per week of top-class centre-backing can be.
For Varane’s sake, we can only hope that his career forks away from this parallel path with King’s and that he can enjoy a clean bill of health for the majority of his remaining years. Yet history has told us to never assume anything when it comes to Varane and his availability.