Alessandro Nesta had almost given up on football altogether. However, following three injury-ravaged seasons, the stylish Italian defender, now 33, has started the current campaign shimmering with the talent and hunger of a teenage newcomer.
Sadly for the AC Milan centre-back, his injuries - which have usually required surgical intervention - have tended to come at crucial moments in his career, not least when Italy have been plotting their way through major tournaments. At the 1998 FIFA World Cup France™, for example, he contested just 94 minutes in two games before rupturing ligaments in his left knee. Four years later, he was forced to miss the Round of 16 tie that proved Gli Azzurri's undoing, and at Germany 2006, he had to pull out during the group stage with a groin injury, opening the door for Marco Materazzi to take over.
No sooner had Nesta recovered from that blow than he was struck down again with an injury to his left shoulder, which resulted in an operation on 22 January 2007. The world champion refused to let his head drop, putting himself on the road to recovery and foregoing the rest of the season to ensure he returned in peak shape, but he continued to be dogged by problems and suffered a slipped disc with a compression fracture of two vertebrae.
Nesta is a great example to follow. He was afraid he'd never play again and now he's without doubt stronger than ever.
Tired of long stays in hospital, Nesta this time opted for alternative treatment, which led to him spending several months in Miami. Each time he tried to return to competitive action, however, his back locked up and the pain became increasingly acute.
"I've experienced some very difficult moments away from the pitch," he said. "The most painful moment in my life came last winter, when I got injured again and did my back in, even though I thought that problem was behind me." Ultimately, he contested just 17 minutes last term, leaving him staring either at surgery or retirement.
He ultimately opted to go under the knife one more time, on 17 February this year. "I'd been scared away from getting that operation by people telling me that if I had surgery on my back, I'd never play again," he explained. "That's why I put it off several times. In the end, it was more straightforward than expected."
The procedure was indeed a success, allowing Nesta to at last begin another season at maximum capacity. Since the Serie A campaign kicked off, he has displayed real authority as the leader at the back for I Rossoneri and even helped himself to his first ever two-goal haul against Chievo. That game also cost him a broken nose and another operation, but those were almost mere inconveniences compared to the punishment he had already suffered.
Today, Nesta claims to "no longer be afraid of anything". He continued: "Before a match, I do a number of exercises to put myself in the best condition possible. Then, when I get out on the pitch, I stop thinking about what happened to me. Anyway, it brings me luck when people leave me for dead."
"Nesta is a great example to follow," added his coach Leonardo. "He was afraid he'd never play again and now he's without doubt stronger than ever."
The former Lazio player claims to have no regrets either, no matter how much of his career he has missed. "The past is the past," he said. "It's allowed me to start appreciating all the tedious things like the wait before a match. I've lost so much time that I'm desperate to play, even if I know that I need to conserve my efforts."
I'm not coming back because I don't want to put my body through too much. Lippi knows what I think. We understand each other.
The disappointments of years gone by have taught Nesta to be cautious. Feeling a twinge of pain in his right thigh not long into Milan's match at Napoli last week, he immediately asked to be taken off. "That's the benefit of experience," he explained. "When you've had so many injuries, you learn how to read your body's signals."
Despite his current renaissance, the Rome native has no intention of returning to the international fray in time for South Africa 2010, having announced his international retirement in 2006. "I'm not coming back because I don't want to put my body through too much," he said. "(Italy coach Marcello) Lippi knows what I think. We understand each other."
As discrete away from the game as he is visible on it, Nesta can nonetheless content himself with his exploits at club level. Although he protests the point, he is now firmly following in the footsteps of three other legendary AC Milan defenders - Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta - all of whom continued to shine in the latter years of their careers. Not bad after so much time in the wilderness.