It was Albert Einstein who once said; “adversity introduces a man to himself.” If that’s the case, Kevin Strootman must have been on quite the voyage of personal discovery over the last few years.
Always a gifted footballer, right from his formative days in the Sparta Rotterdam academy, Strootman has also never been short of self-belief, determination and motivation – qualities that have perhaps been essential to a remarkable comeback from injury that should be both celebrated and admired.
Strootman is, in his own words, at the start of a “second life in football” – the first one really began to take off in the summer of 2011, when PSV signed him for €7.5m, only six months after he’d joined Utrecht for €1.5m.
Upon signing his contract at the Philips Stadion alongside a certain Dries Mertens, who’d made the same move at the same time, Strootman told reporters he “expected a lot” from the transfer, and was “eager to show” what he was capable of. It proved to be a wise move, and after two seasons of further development in Eindhoven, Strootman joined Roma for a fee of €16m in July 2013.
By 9 March 2014 he was really turning heads – touted as one of European football’s biggest prospects, and lining up in a Roma side that had travelled to Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo on a seven-game unbeaten run in Serie A. But his former Utrecht and PSV teammate Dries Mertens, in the Napoli side that day, was one of those forced to look on in anguish as Strootman suffered a cruciate ligament injury just thirteen minutes into a 1-0 defeat.
The Dutch international’s season was ended prematurely and he would also miss out on being part of the Netherlands squad that went on to reach the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup. Far from the end of his troubles though, this was only the beginning.
What followed was an injury nightmare that involved three separate knee operations in the space of eighteen months – Strootman made six league appearances in 14/15 and five league appearances in 15/16. Some speculated whether he’d ever play regularly again, but despite repeated setbacks, the player himself met the physical and psychological challenges head-on.
The moment when perhaps his Naples nightmare finally ended came as a substitute in the latter stages of a 5-0 win over Palermo in February 2016 – it had followed 390 days on the side-lines and launched a truly inspiring comeback.
After that game, Strootman said to Roma’s official website; “Finally, I feel like a footballer again.” He also hinted at darker times. “I never [feared] about stopping, but I was certainly afraid,” he said.
It’s a little over a year now since that night at the Olimpico, and what we are seeing is a player not just grateful to be on the pitch, but regularly turning in excellent performances and once again reaching the lofty heights he’d managed pre-injury.
Only three of Roma’s outfield players have managed more minutes on the pitch in Serie A this season – he was, in my opinion, the man-of-the-match in the Giallorossi’s recent 3-1 win over Sassuolo, and is displaying more leadership qualities and game intelligence than ever before. Kevin Strootman truly is back, and, if Einstein was right, perhaps even a bit more self-aware too.