It shouldn't have been a surprise when Diego Costa limped off the field in the ninth minute of Saturday's UEFA Champions League final. The forward missed most of Atletico Madrid's La Liga-clinching draw against Barcelona the previous weekend, the result of his chronically injured right hamstring flaring up at the wrong time. Midweek, no one expected the Brazilian-born attacker to be available when his upstart club battled Real Madrid for the biggest trophy in club soccer.
And yet, when Diego Simeone unveiled his lineup card Saturday afternoon in Lisbon, Costa's name was there in pen (or, considering the intensity of the Argentine coach, perhaps blood). The 25-year-old was going to give it a go, attempting to make what would have been the most miraculous of recoveries. He didn't last, however, and Atletico fell in extra time after conceding a crushing goal in the 93rd minute. But the fact that Costa could even attempt to play was impressive, and, if you believe the hype, all thanks to a certain extremely unusual, but increasingly popular, treatment.
The press loves a wacky story involving a mysterious woman, playboy stars, and bloody animal products. And the more something gets repeated, the more plausible it becomes.
At some point during last week, Costa flew to Belgrade to meet with Marijana Kovacevic. In addition to having a pretty amazing website, she is the world's foremost expert in using a mixture infused with liquid from a horse placenta to heal the muscle injuries of footballers. Kovacevic combines the treatment with physical therapy and massage. The theory is that the protein-rich material seeps into the muscle and heals the injured area faster than just physical therapy and massage alone.
The treatment has been around for some time; Kovacevic gained international prominence in 2009 when Arsenal star Robin van Persie traveled to receive it. Her website lists more than 110 players—complete with links to their Wikipedia pages—who she has worked with in the past.
Does it work? Well, it didn't for Costa, but former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez was so taken with how quickly Kovacevic's techniques healed players, including Alberto Aquilani, Albert Rieira, and Yossi Benayoun, that he wanted to hire her full time. Kovacevic, wary of being tied exclusively to one club, declined the offer.
The consensus from actual doctors seems to be that Kovacevic's horse placenta methods probably don't do much to speed healing, but they won't hurt a player, either. "It's an unproven remedy," Dr. Carol Cooper told Sky News Online in 2009. "It's wacky but it's not going to do any harm."
In essence, Kovacevic practices massage therapy with a hook that may or, more likely may not, work. But she found an audience, one that's willing to try anything to get better faster. Once a few players testified that her methods were successful, it didn’t really matter they were or not. International soccer players, desperate to get back on the field and with the means to pursue whatever method is available, would follow. Plus, the press loves a wacky story involving a mysterious woman, playboy stars, and bloody animal products. And the more something gets repeated, the more plausible it becomes.
We live in a world where Kobe Bryant repeatedly flies to Germany to undergo some sort of "platelet-rich plasma therapy" in an attempt to cure his ailing knees. Other sports are rife with PEDs, dubious treatments, and any type of cheating you can imagine—and many you can't. In that light, jetting off to Belgrade to get some horse placenta rubbed on your hamstring feels almost tame.
Late last week, a reporter asked Atletico President Enrique Cerezo if Costa would take the field. "It all depends on the horse treatment used, but I have no idea about it as I'm not a doctor,'' he said, which is probably the most honest assessment of the situation.
Costa played for a brief period before coming off and forcing Simeone to use one of his precious three subs. Atletico visibly tired in the late stages of the match, giving up four goals in the final 30 minutes. The team lost, but the forward's mere presence meant that pseudo-science of horse placenta treatment would live to play another day.