Rasmus Elm's brilliant, young career might be over before it really took off
"I am very sorry for Rasmus Elm, but I think that he will never play football again. I only want to wish him to be healthy, and maybe he will start again as a coach or a scout. If he continues his playing career, he will become disabled. Our medical staff are categorically against it." Those were the words of CSKA Moscow president Yevgeny Giner in a December interview with Russian outlet Bobsoccer.
A few days later, the Swedish midfielder terminated his contract with the Russian champions. There are very serious doubts whether we will ever see the 26-year-old on the pitch again. A mysterious, chronic stomach illness that causes bleeding when the body is under physical strain has prevented Elm from training since the start of the season. CSKA doctors suggested it is getting worse, and the footballer could even die if he insists on playing on.
Rasmus himself is much more positive. "I have never thought of quitting," he told Swedish news organisation Barometern. "Unfortunately, things have been exaggerated by the media."
Elm is fully aware recovery will take a long time, however. "I've had problems with sensitive stomach earlier, pushed myself too far and haven't listened to the body," he said. "There are a few months left before I can play again, and I am aiming to get to the highest level, but I am not sure whether I want to be a professional footballer. I need to find joy and motivation, and that depends on how the body responds to exercise."
Illness had prevented Elm from fulfilling his potential in recent years, as he was constantly forced to miss games and never felt fully fit. That is a massive misfortune for him, personally, but also for Swedish football and fans the world over, as we are about to lose a brilliant player.
When former Sweden coach Lars Lagerback first called Elm onto the national team in 2009, he remarked, "He is our biggest talent since Zlatan Ibrahimovic." He was absolutely right, though the midfielder was hardly heard from, largely because his personality couldn't possibly be further from that of the wayward Paris Saint-Germain genius.
While Ibrahimovic published a highly controversial autobiography titled "I am Zlatan," in which everyone from Louis van Gaal to Pep Guardiola was mercilessly criticised, Elm's contribution was a cookbook. With his mother's help, Rasmus wrote up gluten-free recipes and tips for those also suffering from celiac disease. He is known to carry a small bag of rice everywhere and has understandably always been very careful with his food, but his main goal was to help others.
Those who know Elm will readily admit his personality is exceptional; he is a very shy guy who tries to stay out of the limelight but will usually go out of his way to help his friends. Rasmus has even told his agent, Patrick Mork, not to work too hard on his behalf. "He is incomparable to any other player," Mork said.
Rasmus didn't even want to become a footballer in the first place. When growing up in a small town of Broakulla, he was more interested in animals -- one of his cats was named Totti. He didn't even like playing with his two elder brothers, David and Viktor, because they were much stronger than he. It soon became evident Rasmus was the most talented of the three by some distance, but it was still difficult to persuade him to play, as he suffered from anxiety and often hoped for games to be cancelled because of bad weather.
It took a long time before the teenager managed to overcome his fears and started performing for the local team alongside much older players. He wasn't physical enough to fight them, but his outstanding footballing brain enabled him to dictate the tempo and send pinpoint passes.
In 2005, it was obvious Elm, then 17, had completely outgrown his surroundings, and a move to professional football was on the cards. A deal was made with Swedish second-division side Osters, but then he was asked to visit hometown club Kalmar for a few hours, and he immediately felt at home when the team's stars came to greet him. His heart told him to stay there, and Rasmus has always followed his heart. That was a brilliant decision, and he soon developed into a majestic midfield maestro.
Kalmar were so delighted with Rasmus' progress that his brothers were soon signed by the club as well. Viktor joined in 2006, David completed the picture in 2007, and the trio went on to be very influential in the sensational title win in 2008, the first in club history. Viktor might have scored more goals that season, but Rasmus topped the league in assists, alongside Henrik Larsson. At 20 years of age, he was the country's brightest hope, and teams all over Europe started following him closely.
Such interest became even higher after Elm scored this supreme volley in only his third game for the national team and then performed superbly at the Under-21 European Championships on home soil in the summer of 2009.
Bayer Leverkusen came very close to signing the prodigy that summer, but Elm eventually chose to abandon the negotiations and go to AZ Alkmaar instead. Having a close friend from the U-21 team, Pontus Wernbloom, alongside him was important, and even more so was the feeling he got when visiting the club from the town just north of Amsterdam. Rasmus followed his heart again and preferred the Eredivisie to the Bundesliga.
We will never know whether that was the best decision, but after taking his time to settle, Elm became the leader at AZ. The 2011-12 season was brilliant for him, as the team topped the table for a long period before finishing fourth. The Swede scored 13 goals in all competitions that term but was especially impressive thanks to his vision, range of passing and dead-ball speciality. He once even managed to find the net directly from a corner.
It's little wonder top Premier League teams were queuing to sign him. The list included Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and Newcastle, but Liverpool were the most likely destination. Elm lacks Steven Gerrard's intensity, but he could easily be seen as the captain's heir because of his qualities.
The midfielder preferred to wait until after Euro 2012 to decide on his future and then chose CSKA Moscow. Again, it was his heart that told him to go for the less glamorous option, and he opted for a team with a positive atmosphere in the dressing room, which once again included Wernbloom, who had moved to Moscow a few months previously.
Rasmus was immediately a huge success for CSKA. Coach Leonid Slutsky gave him the freedom to run the game, and CSKA won the title in both of his seasons in Russia. When talking to me a year ago, teammate Alan Dzagoev said, "Elm is by far the best midfielder in the league." To achieve such level and high admiration despite significant health problems is no mean feat.
As his contract was about to end this summer, the midfielder started looking for new options, and this time a move to a top league looked almost certain, but fate decided differently. Elm will now miss at least a year, and even if he is allowed to make a comeback, signing him will be a gamble most clubs will be reluctant to make.
For now, Kalmar are more than glad to have him training with them again, and club management is dreaming of having the three brothers with them again. David, who had an unsuccessful spell at Fulham, is back already, while Viktor is having a great time at Alkmaar, where he replaced his brother.
"Kalmar might be the most logical destination for Rasmus now. I think most of the Swedes don't believe that he will play for the national team again," Petter Landen of Swedish publication Expressen told ESPN FC.
Some hope remains, however. "I really want Elm to recover and play like he used to. He is one of the most talented Swedish footballers I have ever witnessed," commented Petter Ostman, also of Expressen.
Let us hope, then. Elm deserves much better luck, not just as a footballer, but also as a person.
Michael is an experienced European football writer, who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo, amongst others.