Injury comebacks following long lay-offs might happen all the time in football, but rarely has there been a case quite as curious as that of Bayern Munich and Germany’s number one Manuel Neuer – not least given his age and the nature of the injury.
Let’s chart his successful recent return to action…
It all started in December 2022. Germany had been knocked out of the World Cup in Qatar at the group stage, much earlier than anticipated. Neuer had planned a holiday for after the final on 18 December, so had some unexpected free time after his arrival back home in Munich.
“I still had everything going around in my head,” he said in a recent documentary released by the club. “The negative vibes too.”
To help clear his head, Neuer decided to go skiing with some friends in the Alps to the south of Munich. “For me, it was just like going to the bakery to pick up some bread. I think I’ve been skiing since I was six years old. I’ve been doing it for over 30 years and nothing like this has ever happened. But unfortunately, there was something under the snow that blocked me. That meant I fell and hurt myself.”
Little did he know at the time, but as he was airlifted out by helicopter to the nearby town of Murnau, it was the start of a 10-month odyssey until he would be able to play again.
“His entire lower leg was broken – his tibia and also his fibula,” said Professor Dr Peter Ueblacker, one of Bayern’s team doctors.
“Medically speaking in terms of a diagnosis, it’s a very serious injury where the first thing you have to do is get back to having a normal day-to-day function. That’s before you even start thinking about getting back to being an elite-level athlete.
“It was a very serious injury. It’s probably the most serious injury we’ve had at Bayern in the last few years or even decades with regard to a professional footballer.”
With Bayern due to resume the Bundesliga campaign away to RB Leipzig on 20 January 2023, the news sent shockwaves through the club as they geared up for the second half of the season.
“I immediately sent a message in the team Whatsapp group and apologised straight away,” Neuer said. “I told them that I would probably be out until the next season.”
At the time, Sven Ulreich was the only other senior goalkeeper in the squad, so Bayern reacted by bringing in Yann Sommer from Borussia Mönchengladbach as a replacement.
All of which left Neuer with a broken leg, the prospect of a lengthy road to recovery and no guarantee of returning to his best form – left alone of regaining his place in the side given the presence of a custodian of Sommer’s calibre.
Perhaps the easy option, then, given that Neuer was 36 and had already won virtually every individual and team honour available to him over a glittering career, would have been to call it quits. But not Neuer.
“Maybe a few people would have said ‘OK, I’ve reached a certain age I’ve achieved a lot and had a lot of success and I’m happy with my career’,” he said.
“Obviously I’m happy with my career too, but I know that there could still be something big on its way and I’m willing to fight for that. I need that for me because I’m very ambitious, but also because I love playing in a team and I love being a footballer. That’s why I set myself the target of saying: ‘I can come back’.”
It was a step-by-step process and by no means a quick one. The first phase of his recovery was to let the bone heal: to this end, he wore a protective boot and used crutches to avoid putting weight on it. As the fibula is such a big bone, it takes a particularly long time to heal.
And, as Neuer emphasised, while it was his leg that was recovering, the psychological side of things was also crucial.
“Unfortunately I’ve been sidelined for long periods before,” the now 37-year-old said. “On the one hand, it’s frustrating because I’ve been injured before, but on the other hand, it helps to have a plan in mind so you can prepare yourself for what can happen during your rehabilitation and your comeback.
“It was difficult to accept that that was the reality, but I always dealt with it in a positive way and always tried to get the best out of every training session, every therapy session, every rehab session. I had a great team around me.
“Giving up wasn’t an option for me. I enjoy being a professional footballer so much that I said: ‘I’m absolutely determined to come back’.”
The next stage of his physical recovery, once the bone had healed, was to learn to walk again under the guidance of the club’s team of physios and doctors. Then it was a case of building up his muscle structure before he could even contemplate running again. Indeed, it was not until April 2023 – four months after his accident – that he was at a stage where he was able to do his first running session. He also underwent regular X-rays to make sure the bone was holding up well.
His teammates were regular visitors throughout his rehabilitation sessions, and Neuer was present in the dressing room and team huddles before every home game at the Allianz Arena.
Yet despite all the help available to Neuer, his road to recovery was far from straightforward.
“You always have setbacks,” he explained. “One of mine was that I couldn’t play passes that were longer than three or five metres. I kept having a bit of pain in my leg on the right side, so I had to have some metal removed.”
After undergoing a minor operation to remove the offending screw, Neuer was not only pain-free but also had greater mobility.
Such are the small details that make a difference at the top level of the game. Dr Ueblacker explained that Neuer’s recovery was such that it would have been considered complete for an ordinary citizen after six months. Yet Neuer is by no means ordinary, and those extra four months of recovery are effectively the difference between Everyman and Superman (u).
There was another stone in his path though. Given the trauma suffered to the right side of his leg, the left side of Neuer’s body began to overcompensate, which led to a small muscle tear. That led to a period of rest, more treatment and physiotherapy before he was able to continue.
“I admire him for the way he’s come back,” head coach Thomas Tuchel said. “Maybe I shouldn’t even say this, but I’m proud of him for coming back from such a serious, complicated injury. And from the first day I met him here, he had such clarity in pursuing his objective in such an unrelenting manner, through all the ups and downs. He deserves maximum respect for that.”
Neuer’s comeback was complete on Saturday 28 October 2023 when he was named in the starting line-up for Bayern’s home game against Darmstadt – 351 days since his last outing for the reigning Bundesliga champions.
“I was positively excited and in some anticipation of what was going to happen out there,” Neuer said after keeping a clean sheet in an 8-0 win. “I was just really excited to be back at the Allianz Arena, to play in front of my own fans and to be on the pitch with the team.
“There were definitely ups and downs, but I always had the will to return. I’m still very ambitious and I managed to return with a lot of experts, doctors, fitness coaches and coaches, and I’m very grateful to them. I’m someone who loves to train. The other thing was the mental aspect, whether it would work out again. I always believed in it. I’ve rarely been happier than this, to have finally made it and that so many who accompanied me were in the stadium today.”
While that game was immediately followed by a shock 2-1 defeat against third-tier side Saarbrücken in the second round of the DFB Cup, Neuer and Bayern returned to winning ways with the 4-0 Klassiker victory over Borussia Dortmund, before a 2-1 win against Galatasaray in the UEFA Champions League and a 4-2 triumph over Heidenheim.
It’s been a positive return so far then, but Neuer is still taking a cautious approach and is not in the current Germany squad during the international break for their games against Turkey and Austria.
“I’ve had very good contact with Manu over the last few months and I’ve congratulated him on every little development,” explained Germany coach Julian Nagelsmann.
“At the end of the day the statistics are clear, and I’ve experienced it myself after such a serious injury: you come back… and after the first few games, which are very emotional, there’s often a little dip where there’s a risk of muscle injuries. So with that in mind, it’s healthy for him and his body to have a few days of rest.”
Neuer’s comeback on the international stage will have to wait a little while longer. But if the last few months are anything to go by, that too will be a roaring success.