By Ian Plenderleith
I was reading the latest edition of World Soccer last night and came across a short report that Julio Gonzalez, the Paraguay striker who lost an arm in a car accident at the end of 2005 while at Vicenza in Italy, made his professional comeback with Paraguayan first division side Tacuary last November.
Gonzalez not only had his arm amputated after the accident, he also suffered multiple fractures after losing control of his car and crashing into two oncoming vehicles while on his way to Venice airport with Argentine team-mate Ruben Grighini. Grighini got away with a broken leg, but Gonzalez was not expected to play professional soccer again. Yet less than two years later he’s back out on the field.
"I want opponents to mark me and kick me because I’m going to play that way," said Gonzalez after his comeback game, a 1-1 tie at Olimpia. The plea to be treated as an equal reminded me of the post-war German footballer Robert Schlienz (1924-1995), who made a similarly remarkable comeback with VfB Stuttgart, where he’s still hailed as arguably the best player the club’s ever produced.
Schlienz, who had already taken a Russian bullet on the Eastern Front that left a permanent scar on his jaw, was a prolific striker with Stuttgart when he had an arm amputated following a car accident in 1948. He was casually hanging his left arm out the window because it was a hot summer’s day, hit a hole in the road, and the arm was crushed when his car turned on its side. Surgeons amputated the limb, but only four months later he was back on the field playing against Bayern Munich.
Like Gonzalez, Schlienz played without his prosthetic limb and simply tied the long left sleeve of his short up around his stump. His coach decided that he should move from striker to play as a wide midfielder to lessen his physical involvement in the game, but that didn’t blunt the player’s will to win – he was known for mercilessly driving his fellow players and for his combative attitude on the field. Team-mate Lothar Weise said of Schlienz: "On the field he was a dirty git, but afterwards he was my best friend."
Schlienz won two German cups and two championships with Stuttgart, and that included a vital comeback goal against Saarbrücken in the 1952 championship game. His side won 3-2, and media reports declared him man of the match. In his whole career – pre- and post-amputation – he scored 143 goals in 391 games. Schlienz also played three times for the German National Team in the mid-50s, although coach Sepp Herberger was for a long time reportedly reluctant to select him because he was afraid opponents would intentionally shirk from tackling the player.
It’s a shame if that was true. The stories of both players share the same thread – the hope that they can be treated just like everyone else and judged on their merits as a player. Schlienz succeeded for over a decade after his accident. The 26-year-old Gonzalez will hopefully enjoy a similar period to prove that he can do the same. After all, as long as you have nine other players to take the throw-ins, all you need are two good feet.