U.S. international defender Tony Sanneh has experienced the challenge of his lifetime. The 32-year-old defender has battled a back injury for almost 15 months, last appearing in a match on Dec. 7, 2002. After turning in one of the heralded performances in the USA's run to the quarterfinals in Korea/Japan, Sanneh is back nearing full fitness and hoping to once again sport the USA jersey in this weekend’s match against Haiti. ussoccer.com talked with Sanneh about his struggle to get back to the field, the lessons he’s learned, and what it means to finally get back to being a soccer player …
ussoccer.com: The first thing we want to say is, ‘welcome back’. How does it feel to be back in your first full training camp since the 2002 World Cup?
Tony Sanneh: “It’s good to be back. The training is very intense. It’s nice to play at this level, and focus on the next goal of qualifying for the World Cup. I still hope to be part of this team in the future.”
ussoccer.com: Realizing it would take a medical dictionary to explain your injury, can you give a brief explanation?
TS: “Basically the problem started with inflammation in the SI joint in my back, and my pelvis was also unstable. The inflammation causes pain, and the joint tries to fix itself by growing bone around it. The bone growth began to rub against another bone, causing more pain. The problem then travels to the muscles. You basically feel like your muscles are cramped all the time, which makes it impossible to run.”
ussoccer.com: Over the course of the last 15 months, how many doctors have examined you?
TS: “At least 20.”
ussoccer.com: Injuries for athletes are always frustrating, but with the constant battle and uncertainties about your injury in particular, were there times you thought you would never make it back?
TS: “There were a couple times where I started to worry, but pretty much everyone I saw told me the problem was correctable. The big question was how long my body would take to react to the treatment, and no one really knew. I always believed that I would be able to play again; the unknown was how long of a recovery, how long I could play, and at what level.”
ussoccer.com: Clearly you have learned the definition of patience …
TS: “I’ve had a couple other injuries that lasted a while, but this was over the top. What made it difficult was that I felt like I was peaking as a player. Physically I was very good, and I was thinking about making a transfer to another team. The injury also came in my prime earning years, so it was difficult to deal with.”
ussoccer.com: How has everything you’ve had to endure changed you as a person?
TS: “It made me look at the other things in my life, and it forced me to start planning for the post-soccer career quicker than I had planned. I spent time making sure everything was in the right place and discovering what my interests were beside soccer.”
ussoccer.com: What did you discover that you like besides soccer?
TS: (laughing) Not much!
ussoccer.com: How has your club (FC Nurnberg) been treating you during the process?
TS: “They’ve been pretty good over all. The coach has been very patient. He said the most important thing is that I play again, and not to rush.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve been in full training for over a month, yet you haven’t stepped on the field for a match yet. What is your current status?
TS: The club just wanted to make sure I was medically clear, and make sure that I was fully fit. No use getting hurt again after two weeks. As far as getting practice games, it’s no longer possible. Right now, only 40 percent of the Bundesliga is made up of German players, so they are trying to cut foreigners all the time. What they have done in the lower leagues is prevented non-Europeans from playing. So there’s been no chance for me to test myself in any type of games.”
ussoccer.com: FC Nurnberg is currently in second place in the league, and right at the edge of qualifying for promotion to the Bundesliga? At this critical juncture in the season, do you think it will be hard for you to break into the team?
TS: “I really don’t think it will be difficult to get a chance to play. The difficult part will be figuring out how I can be integrated into the lineup without upsetting a lot of the younger players, or disrupting team chemistry. There’s no doubt of my level compared to the players we have there, but it is a team and you have to fit in. The coach and I are going to talk through it. I told him that I don’t care what role I have with the team, I just want to contribute. The last thing I want to do is come in and throw everything off balance. Using the last six or eight weeks of the season to rehabilitate me is not the main goal of the team, it’s to get promoted. If they think I can help without disrupting things, I’ll play.”
ussoccer.com: Looking back to the 2002 World Cup, you clearly had one of the outstanding performances for the U.S. How did you rate your performance?
TS: “I think I did well. I always get excited to play on the big stage. Whenever I’ve played in games like the MLS Cup finals [ in 1996 and 1997] or the Interamerican Cup , I always seem to put myself in a position to score , and do my job defensively. In situations like the World Cup, you’re caught a lot in one-on-ones, and my physical attributes allowed me to get ahead of people.”
ussoccer.com: You were pretty much left one-on-one against one of the world’s finest attackers in Luis Figo, and managed to hold your own. How difficult of an assignment was that?
TS: “I found Sergio Conceicao a little more difficult, because he plays more direct. If you know you’re faster than somebody, it makes it a lot easier. So it wasn’t the worst match up in the world. It was fun to play against somebody who has so much respect. You know if you do well, everyone will see it as an accomplishment.”
ussoccer.com: You mentioned always putting yourself in positions to score, and that certainly was the case in the quarterfinal against Germany. Is it difficult to think about the one that got away?
TS: “Looking back, it sucks, but a lot of things in life don’t go your way. I put myself in the right position, and hopefully next time I do the right thing. I know Oliver Kahn is a great goalkeeper, and part of it was I was thinking where he was going to be. I wanted to hit the perfect shot. It didn’t work out on the day, and it’s very disappointing for me. I like to think of myself as a player who gets in the right place at the right time, and does the right thing. This was one day when I thought I had a very good game overall, and didn’t finish my opportunities. I’m disappointed I didn’t score, but looking back I think it helped a lot of people respect American soccer. It made a lot of people realize that I wasn’t just a big black kid running after people in the back. It showed that I can attack and do some things with the ball.”
ussoccer.com: You may very well get the chance to play your first real match in over 15 months against Haiti on Saturday. After all the struggle, what will it mean for you personally to finally step back on the field?
TS: “It’s hard to say. I’m still not 100 percent back yet, and I’m not sure for the rest of my career how long I’ll be able to do it at this level. Right now I’m able to play, and I think I can do more than just contribute. I think I can be a leader and a force at right back. To get back and actually play, even though the game isn’t that significant, will go down as one of the five biggest games of my career. Even if I only played this one game and never played again, it will still mean a lot to me. It’s something that you miss so much, and for me, it’s one more chance.”