“Aaaaaarrrrrrrrgghh!” Óscar de Marcos was in agony. Writhing in pain on the sidelines of San Mamés, the right-back rolled left and then right, and slapped a puddle on the ground in anger. He was lost and didn’t quite know what to do. This wasn’t normal. Having your scrotum torn during a football match isn’t normal.
Javier Paredes wasn’t particularly tall for a defender, however the Real Zaragoza left-back had managed to climb enough steps on an invisible stepladder for his studs to arrive at De Marcos’ private parts with a follow-through from a clearance in a LaLiga match between Athletic Club and the side from Aragon, on 17 December 2011.
The problem was that his boot didn’t just scrape across De Marcos’ manhood. Instead, the muddy studs were planted right where nobody should go during the 90 minutes of a football game. Like the tip of a pole vaulter’s pole being jabbed into the ground.
Most players would stop after something like that. Some might even see retirement and a quiet life away from the fields of battle flash before their eyes. But not De Marcos. When Ernesto Valverde was coach of Athletic, he used to tell De Marcos to take it easy, that he wasn’t Superman. “He would never listen to me,” Valverde later joked, and on this winter’s night, De Marcos really did want to be invincible.
The challenge took place with 27 minutes and two seconds on the clock, with the scores at 1-1 after goals from Markel Susaeta and Leonardo Ponzio, and with the team from Bilbao down to ten men after a Javi Martínez red card. As a result, the 22-year-old De Marcos carried on. He wasn’t for throwing in the towel. “Well, it was when Marcelo Bielsa’s was there,” he remarked years later when asked why he didn’t request to be substituted. “I just asked for some toilet paper and put it in place and carried on.”
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So out he came for the second 45 minutes, having to regularly peek down his shorts to make sure everything was as okay as it could be given the circumstances. Thankfully, the shorts were black.
Despite his issue, De Marcos played well in the second period and even put the ball in the back of the net in the 28th minute. The full-back latched onto a pass and rounded the goalkeeper exquisitely before slotting the ball through the goal frame, but the offside flag was up and the goal was ruled out. The replays, though, showed that De Marcos had been in line with the last defender.
At that point in the match, it would have been fair to say that it hadn’t been De Marcos’ night. Yet his moment of revenge was still to come. With just over three minutes to go, and with Zaragoza also down to ten men after a Maurizio Lanzaro red card, Athletic took a dramatic late lead. Just as the commentators on the Canal+ coverage of the game in Spain were talking about how well De Marcos had performed, they were interrupted by the young talent as he received the ball just inside the area and picked out Gaizka Toquero for the winner.
Including the three minutes of stoppage time, De Marcos played 66 minutes with a torn scrotum that rainy Saturday night – but it was all worth it as the team secured a 2-1 victory to take three points. “He’s made of different stuff,” the goalscorer Toquero said of De Marcos and his bravery in a post-match interview. “What he wants is to play all the time. Not only that, but he played a great game. He is a top player.”
De Marcos wasn’t on the pitch for the midweek Copa del Rey fixture against Real Oviedo a few days later. Although he was able to complete the league fixture, that doesn’t mean that his wound wasn’t serious. Straight after the Zaragoza match, he was taken to the Clínica San Sebastián de Bilbao and he had to stay for a couple of nights after a diagnosis of an upper urethra tear and bruising. There were stitches too, although nobody quite knows how many. Some reports said 20, some 25, some 40. “They told me 37, but I didn’t really pay attention,” the player himself has said.
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For De Marcos, this incident sort of defined his career at the club. His feat of bravery is still talked about to this day, not because it was a one-off but because this is the kind of battle he has persevered through so many times for the club – even if he has never, thankfully, suffered the exact same injury.
His father was the president of the local Athletic fan group in the Basque town of Laguardia and De Marcos is about as dedicated to the club’s values as they come. “I’ve never seen a player who is more Athletic than he is,” Carlos Gurpegui, the full-back’s captain at the time, once said.
It’s not just about toughness. Being a part of the Athletic family is also about embracing the community spirit of the club, and De Marcos has certainly done that. He wouldn’t just sign autographs for fans after training; he’d go a step further and drop them off at the train station at Lezama. He wouldn’t just visit a children’s hospital once a year at Christmas; he’d go a step further and stop by one in Barakaldo every Friday. He wouldn’t just send some signed shirts to children in poverty in foreign lands; he’d go a step further and visit these countries with an NGO.
De Marcos embodies all of the values of the Basque team, and he’s a wonderful footballer too. This was on show in that Zaragoza victory back in 2011, while later that season he’d go on to play a fundamental part in Los Leones’ famous Europa League triumph over Manchester United by scoring in both legs in that 5-3 aggregate win.
Just 30 years of age, the right-back still has a lot of football left in his legs and a lot still to give to the Athletic cause. With bravery, that’s exactly what he’ll do. They talk a lot in Spain about having big balls; De Marcos certainly does. Metaphorically, that is, and not just because of the swelling.
By Euan McTear @emctear