BY ZULHILMI ZAINAL Follow on Twitter
The meeting with Wan Zack Haikal Wan Noor at the Kuala Lumpur Sports Medicine Centre (KLSMC) in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur changed any preconceived notions I had on the Selangor attacker, who is currently into the fourth month of his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury rehabilitation.
While my earlier efforts to arrange for a good time to talk to him was met with responses that I found a little cold, the Wan Zack who greeted me at the KLSMC entrance did so with a warm smile, putting paid to my fears that I would be in for a tough time, trying to interview an uncooperative subject.
Another presumption of mine that got cast away upon meeting him is the idea that ACL injury is mentally devastating to players who go through it, due to the lengthy rehabilitation and the time away from the game required.
Surprisingly, the man I encountered displayed a quiet determination, and coupled with his unexpected warmth towards me, he was a picture of eagerness, desperation even, towards the rehabilitation regime and a quick return to playing.
Speaking to me while a technician conducts ultrasound therapy on his knee to prepare him for the day's rehab work, the 28-year old player recounted how his earlier ACL injury has helped him prepare mentally for the most recent occurence.
In 2013, while playing for FC Ryukyu in Japan's third tier, he went through his first ACL injury, to his right knee, which eventually cut short his stint.
His second and most recent ACL injury affected his left knee, 22 minutes into the Red Giants' pre-season friendly against Singapore's Home United on January 22 this year, which meant that the winger is yet to make a competitive appearance for the club he joined this season.
"When I first injured my ACL, back when I was playing in Japan, the Ryukyu manager travelled all the way to Malaysia with me and told the Malaysian FA (FAM) that the club would reimburse the treatment costs.
"From what I saw, their facilities were far from adequate, but they would ensure that injured players received the best treatments. They did not cut corners on treatment, they simply wanted their players to return strongly. They told me to find the best treatment centre in Kuala Lumpur, something I still remember and appreciate until now. I still keep in touch with my ex-teammates on Instagram.
"And that prior experience with ACL injury has informed me of my current injury; I know what to expect, I know what to do. When I recovered from my first ACL, I was able to play as well as before it happened. This time around, I'm more prepared and more focused on what I need to do.
"Injuries, even those as severe as this are part and parcel of a footballer's life. I have to get up again everytime I fall. For me, my mental condition is all up to me," he explained.
And Wan Zack draws courage from the example shown by another Malaysian player, who has picked himself up every single time he was brought down by a long-term injury.
"Let me give you an example; Zaquan (Kedah and Malaysia forward Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak). He's now the national team captain, despite having gone through three ACL injuries throughout his career.
"I've been hotel roommates with him before when we played for the national team, and also underwent rehab together in 2012 at the ISN (National Sports Institute). So naturally the topic of conversation naturally gravitated towards the topic of our injuries. And KLSMC was recommended to me by him, as he had also undergone treatment here," revealed the former Kelantan and Felda United player.
However, Wan Zack acknowledged the need for a support system closer to home, and for him it is his wife, Syahifah Azmi and his two children.
"I can't describe well enough how much my wife has been helping me. She's always right beside me when I'm fit or sidelined. Now that I'm injured, she drives me around, looks after me, treats me like a king basically!
"My clothes and meals are ready when I get up in the morning and when I come home from rehab, so that I can relax at home," he let on, beaming with pride.
And where mental fortitude is involved, the Maran, Pahang-born player tries his best to look at everything positively in the course of his recovery, interpreting all that has happened to him through a spiritual lens.
"Everything happens for a reason and I can learn from it. I'm now better-prepared for injuries and know what to expect.
"Who knows, I may just go into physiotherapy after my playing days are over!" he said with an earnest smile.
The second part of the interview, to be published later, will look into the rehabilitation work that Wan Zack goes through.
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