Crystal Palace’s Pape Souaré on the brink of a miraculous return
Senegalese defender to play in EFL Cup a year on from potentially career-ending car crash
Pape Souaré is set to return to action a year after he was involved in a potentially career-ending car crash. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty
Pape Souaré remembers wincing in disbelief as the car swerved out in front of him and, a split second later, the sickening crunch as his Mercedes G63 collided at speed with the central reservation. But it was only once the dust from the deployed airbags had settled and he slowly became aware of his surroundings, his ears ringing and senses numbed by shock, that the fear truly kicked in.
His right leg was trapped, the driver’s door of his mangled vehicle having folded itself inwards on impact and pinned him to his seat. Another commuter on the M4, who had witnessed the crash that sunny afternoon a little over a year ago, had pulled over and was urging the injured footballer, as calmly as he could, to focus. “He kept saying my name, which surprised me. I didn’t understand how he knew my name,” Souaré recalls. “He was telling me: ‘Stay with me, stay with me.’ I was really listening to him, waiting and waiting, and I couldn’t move or do anything.
“At that moment you can do something stupid, trying to move your leg or trying to get out of the car, so I have to thank that stranger for talking to me, for telling me to wait and trust the ambulance people who were coming. But even when he was talking to me I was nervous. The door was on my leg and I didn’t know what was going on. The only thing I had in Africa growing up was my dream of being a footballer. I only have my legs to do that. I was worried. I was scared, thinking about my career.”
Souaré tells his story without even a grimace these days. He wants people to know what happened to him at a little after midday on Sunday 11 September last year, in part to thank those who have offered him support or words of encouragement over a draining 12 months. There were times, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the crash, when fears abounded that the Senegalese might not even walk again, let alone resume a footballing career that has taken him from the Diambars academy in Saly to the Premier League via Lille. And yet, 373 days on from the horrific events on the motorway near Cranford, the left-back will return to the Crystal Palace first team for Tuesday’s League Cup third-round tie with Huddersfield Town. His recovery is the club’s good news story of the campaign.
The journey back has been painful at times, arduous throughout, and began with that stranger urging the wounded Souaré to sit still while the medical services arrived. The 27-year-old had been dropping a friend off at Heathrow airport and was only 10 minutes from his home when the accident occurred. Paramedics attended the scene, with firefighters forced to slice off the roof of the player’s car to remove him from the wreckage. A bike race had closed local roads, ruling out transportation by ambulance to the nearest trauma unit and meaning Souaré had to be airlifted to a hospital across the capital. “I remember them cutting the roof to get me out because the door was still on my leg, so they couldn’t lift me,” he says. “And I remember the air ambulance before they gave me something to stop the pain. By then I was starting to feel my leg.”
He would wake up in the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel to find Palace’s club doctor, Dr Zaf Iqbal, who had trained previously at the facility and had been contacted by paramedics, already a reassuring presence on the scene. “I had scans of the whole of my body, and was told I’d broken my jaw and my right thigh bone,” says Souaré. The results of those assessments were actually positive, with no serious damage sustained to the hip bone or joint, even if it was now clear just how close he had come to a far grimmer prognosis. Had the impact been a couple of centimetres higher “it could have broken my spine and I would have been paralysed. I was told I was very lucky”.
It would be two days before he underwent surgery on his thigh, involving the insertion of a nail to hold the bone in place, and three before his jaw was wired by a maxillofacial trauma surgeon. His recovery was sustained by soft foods and drinks for several weeks. Souaré’s father was undergoing treatment for cancer in Paris and had been told he did not have long to live. His mother, back in Senegal, suffered a fall on the day after her son’s crash and broke her own leg.
The sense of helplessness ate away at the patient, who chose not to relay news of his accident to his parents. “There were a lot of things happening at that time. I was thinking about my career as a footballer, and people were telling me no one had come back to play at the top level from this kind of injury. It makes you think. But my dad was very sick. When I visited him [during rehabilitation late last year] and saw how he was, and I only had a broken leg, it showed I could not just give up.” Souaré Sr died in December.
Palace’s players and management did their best to support their stricken team-mate. Scott Dann and Damien Delaney were among the first to visit him in his hospital bed. “They were shocked when they saw me because my face was very swollen,” he says. “To see someone who they had been playing with one day, and then like this the next … it is crazy, but I want to thank them because they supported me all along. They lifted me, and I had a lot of messages from the fans.” The Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye, a team-mate at Diambars and Lille, has been in regular contact checking on his progress. Souaré’s social media platforms have been awash with support.
A banner was unfurled in the Holmesdale End, reading “Keep strong Pape”, at the home victory over Stoke the following Sunday with similar messages of support on the big screen inside Selhurst Park. “Pape was incredibly brave,” says the manager at the time, Alan Pardew. “I remember visiting him in the hospital the following day and he still offered up that beaming smile of his as best he could through the broken jaw, even after everything that had happened. We all loved him at the club – he was so popular, a star on and off the field, and we missed him badly as a team and a group after the crash. To see him up, running and playing again now is testimony to his commitment and the hard work he and the medical staff put in. It’s wonderful to see him back.”
That the defender is now challenging for a first-team return feels remarkable and owes everything to his patience and dedication, as well as the efforts of the medical staff both at the Royal London and Crystal Palace. His challenge initially was merely to learn how to walk again. The surgeons had cut through the glutes to insert the nail into the thigh, meaning Souaré had to “reactivate” the muscles before he could start rebuilding his strength. He used a muscle stimulation machine, trying to ignore the pain whenever he tensed his quads, and an anti-gravity treadmill to practise walking with reduced body weight. He cast aside his crutches 10 weeks after the accident, his daily workload a series of small goals: from completing a single leg squat, to time on an exercise bike, to using an isokinetic machine to work on the main muscle groups in his right leg.
“The injury had been in a very sensitive place, and I had to work hard to build up the muscle again,” he says. “It was never comfortable, and you can feel your leg is weak and there’s not enough muscle on it. It was very difficult. When you don’t know what will happen in the end, it’s hard. I didn’t know when the pain would stop or how my legs would be. When you’re hurt and wonder if you’re going to play football again, you have to be worried. But I didn’t want to give up. [The medical staff] said if I did the work, everything would be fine, so I trusted them and did what they asked.
“My family don’t put any pressure on me, but I put pressure on myself. When you are from Africa and want to be a football player, the only thing you think about is making your family proud and to try to help them financially. These are the most important things. I only know football, so I’d work at the training ground, doing the bike in the morning, then having treatment, then the gym in the afternoon to try and gain some muscle in my leg. It was hard emotionally, too, because my family are back in Senegal. That’s why I said the fans and the club, all the staff, were so incredible for me. I’d go on Twitter and see people sending me messages, saying they missed me and to keep going. That’s what I’ve done. It’s like they were trying to do everything so there was still something for me in England. They were there for me.”
Five months after the surgery, Souaré could run on the treadmill. Six weeks later, under the watchful eye of physios, strength and fitness coaches and the club doctor, he was jogging out on to the training pitch again. “The first time I went outside my team-mates were all out clapping to welcome me back. When they saw me coming to join them for a full training session, they were even happier.” Did they dare tackle him? “I was the one trying to tackle everyone else. That’s me.”
Even now there are occasional waves of pain, a tightness in the reformed muscles after exercise, but he has stuck to the detailed rehabilitation programme and it has paid off. He has featured three times for Palace’s under-23s, completing a half, then 70 minutes and, exactly a year on from the crash, a full 90 minutes in a 1-0 defeat against Sheffield Wednesday at Selhurst Park. The defender has missed the entire tenures of Sam Allardyce and Frank de Boer at the club and, having been overseen by Pardew when he last featured for the seniors last August, will be playing for Roy Hodgson when his career resumes on Tuesday.
He is driving again and been in contact with the good samaritan at the scene who offered those words of reassurance. His mother, currently in Mecca, has recovered herself and watched her son’s return from afar. “I just wish my dad could be here to see I am back,” he says. “He really cared how I would be in the future, with my leg. Now he’s not here to see. But I think where he is, he will be, like: ‘Yes, he’s fine now.’” That is said through a beaming grin. Palace, a club enduring a dismal campaign, have been in dire need of some inspiration. Souaré’s recovery should supply it.