Leandro Castan: The long walk back

Words by Chloe Beresford Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 9, 2018
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A cavernoma is a cluster of blood cells about the size and appearance of a raspberry that can be found on the brain, causing symptoms such as hemorrhages, seizures and neurological problems including dizziness, double vision and balance problems. Back in September 2014, AS Roma defender Leandro Castan was substituted during a match with Empoli after complaining of similar symptoms and – following medical investigations – was eventually diagnosed with the aforementioned problem.

Surgery is not needed in every case, but as a professional athlete it was decided that it was imperative the Brazilian went through with the procedure. The 46 minutes played against Empoli would be the only action Castan would see during that campaign, eventually returning to action just under one year later at the beginning of 2015/16. Yet to skip over that year would be to dismiss a frightening and gruelling battle for the centre-back, one that would put his entire career at risk.

In the two previous campaigns, Castan was a major part of the Roma backline. After joining the Giallorossi from Corinthians, he would come into his best form late in the 2012/13 season, in the next year there was early talk of a Serie A title for the capital club as Roma won their first ten games of the campaign, only conceding once. Juventus would eventually snatch that top spot, but Castan had formed a real solid partnership with current Bianconeri defender Medhi Benatia.

At that point there was no indication of any problem, but it was in the very next season when the sky suddenly caved in. On December 3rd Castan successfully underwent the operation, and the surgeon confirmed it had been necessary in order to save his football career.

“It’s true, his balance would’ve been compromised without the operation,” said Professor Giulio Maira following the procedure. “After all, the first symptoms of a cavernoma are dizzy spells. It’s impossible to play football if you feel as if you’re sea-sick. We removed the cavernoma, which had bled, so now he and the fans just need to be patient.”

Castan admits that during this time he was in a terribly confused state, and wanted to simply head back to Brazil and hope that it would all go away. Yet he would turn himself around, believing that as a father he needed to show strength in order to quell any worries felt by his young child.

“I remember the terror in the hospital, the night before the operation. Upon waking up, I felt everything but couldn’t move. My wife was there, by my side. Those two days in intensive care were the hardest of my life. It was repeated to me that the operation was successful, but I wondered if I would really go back to normal.” Leandro Castan

The fear factor that anyone would feel in this situation was difficult for the player to overcome, a feeling that Castan has since talked about in the press, along with the process of adjustment to a huge change in his life. “I was one of the five best defenders in Serie A, then suddenly I became an ex-player with the fear of dying,” the Brazilian told La Repubblica. Around the same time, he found out his wife was pregnant with another child, a bitter-sweet piece of news when in such a critical situation.

“I remember the terror in the hospital, the night before the operation,” the defender continued. “Upon waking up, I felt everything but couldn’t move. My wife was there, by my side. Those two days in intensive care were the hardest of my life. It was repeated to me that the operation was successful, but I wondered if I would really go back to normal.”

With this in mind, returning to play football was probably fairly low down on the player’s list of priorities with some much more pressing concerns. Castan had to learn to walk again, and revealed there had been a 10% chance he was going to be left with lasting damage such as a distorted mouth or restricted movement.

Yet through all the difficulties, the defender made an incredible recovery from such an invasive procedure, and was fit and ready to play after missing just one season. Competing at the top end of the table, Roma could not afford to take a chance on the fact that Castan was still the same player, and gave him a chance to move out on loan.

A move to Sampdoria would ultimately fail – reportedly due to a failure to gel with the rest of the squad – and the centre-back would decide instead to join Torino. He would make a good start to life in Turin and the Granata considered making the deal permanent, only for an injury to halt progress until almost the end of the season when boss Sinisa Mihajlovic had already turned to other alternatives at the back.

Returning to play with Roma was not really an option and so at the beginning of this season, Castan accepted a move to Cagliari after admitting his children were starting to ask him why he never played. However this season has been much more positive in Sardinia, and the defender has been praised by boss Diego Lopez for his performances with the Isolani.

“We all know what happened to Castan in recent years,” the Coach told Sky Italia after a 2-1 win over SPAL in February. “Together with the director and the president, we decided to gamble on him. “Castan talks a lot to his teammates in training, he works really hard and that’s great to see. We knew he’d be a wonderful player, but to be honest I didn’t expect him to be this good after a year out.”

In that match, the centre-back provided one assist, made three tackles, four interceptions and no less than six clearances in what was a superb all-round performance. But the very fact he is on the pitch in the Italian top-flight at all is testament to Leandro Castan’s determination, courage and a desire to keep on playing football.

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