"I said to him, 'Dad, I'm a bull. I can survive this and much more.'" As Saúl Ñíguez prepares for Atlético's second leg against Leicester, the midfielder reveals the injury that almost ended it all.
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It happened two years ago, moments before half-time in Atlético's game at Leverkusen in the round of 16. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Saúl Ñíguez went for the same ball and the elfin Spaniard crumpled to the turf holding his side. His discomfort was immediately obvious, the concern among players from both teams tangible. An ambulance whisked him through the streets of Leverkusen and soon came the diagnosis: kidney trauma with a haematoma.
I remember everything that happened: where I fell, all the times I threw up, the convulsions, being stretchered off, the seat I was in, the team-mates who came to see me [in hospital] and so on. This season, when we met Leverkusen, I made sure I returned to the spot where I could have lost it all.
At the time I felt it was all doom and gloom until I saw my dad. Once he was by my side, I stopped feeling bad and complaining because I was more concerned with trying to reassure him. Seeing him cry was the worst bit. I said to him, "Dad, I'm a bull, I can survive this and much more." He tried to calm down and laughed, but I could tell he was still distressed.
My dad has always been there. He'd come from Elche every day [an 850km round trip]. He comes to watch as many of my matches as he can, whenever it doesn't clash with my brothers' – and whenever a game is important to me, he's there. He's always there for me, through thick and thin.
Incredibly, the then 20-year-old was back in action within six weeks. It wasn't the end of the story, though – far from it. For the next two years he has played through extreme pain.
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I spent two years playing with an indwelling catheter, in every match and training session. There would be blood in my urine – it was awkward and I'd have shooting pain. I was putting my health on the line to play for Atlético and follow my dreams. I had to keep hoping.
I told myself that having earned my place, I couldn't lose it. That's why I kept playing until I couldn't take any more. The gaffer asked me if I was crazy, because I tried to carry on and tough it out. I replied that I didn't want to waste my opportunity, my dream, just because of a knock. I gave everything, though there did come a point when I couldn't take any more.
Saúl still requires regular check-ups but goes from strength to strength on and off the pitch, winning his first Spain cap earlier this season. In February came another important milestone: returning to Leverkusen after the clubs were paired in the last 16 again.
Going back was really emotional. I remembered everything I went through and on the day of the game, building up to it was quite special. I told myself I was back where I could have lost it all, but that I'd come back stronger and better, a first-team regular. The previous game there had been my first start in the Champions League. And then: look what happened!
THIS happened ...
When I scored the goal, I felt a real sense of release. It was unbelievably emotional for me. Like I said, I felt relieved, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The Bayern goal I scored last season was a great goal, really special, but ultimately it wasn't as emotional as the one at Leverkusen, because of everything that had happened.