Strootman looks forward for Roma as he finally approaches full fitness
On Monday, Mario Rui flew back from Roma's preseason tour of the United States after tearing the ACL in his left knee during a routine training match at Harvard's Ohiri field in Boston. The injury is a devastating setback for the team's €9 million signing from Empoli and one of the first players to tweet support was Kevin Strootman: "Good luck mate. Come back stronger than before."
Strootman knows better than anyone what Rui is going through. In March 2014, The Dutchman suffered the same injury to the same knee after losing his balance following a challenge from Napoli's Blerim Dzemaili. Initially out for eight months, Strootman came back only to take a knock to the same knee at Fiorentina in January 2015, which led to another operation in Amsterdam.
It transpired Strootman was suffering from Cyclops syndrome, a build-up of scar tissue that can stop the knee fully extending, and that he had a problem with his cartilage. Just seven appearances into his comeback, he faced another long spell on the sidelines and ultimately went 464 days between starts for Roma's first team.
"It was a hard time to come back," Strootman tells ESPN FC, in understated fashion, on the phone from Boston. "OK [to get injured], that's one thing. But to get another injury and then come back and get another injury, that was the most frustrating thing."
"You have no idea how good it feels to see Kevin out there," Jim Pallotta, the club's owner, said after watching Strootman start and finish a 3-2 win against Genoa in May. The player nicknamed Er Lavitrice -- The Washing Machine -- by his former coach Rudi Garcia for his ability to receive a bad pass, clean it up and then make a good pass was beginning a new cycle. Strootman has been put through the wringer enough.
"In the Dutch team we have some players who had the same injury, also two times," said Strootman. "I talked to some of them and got their advice."
Marco van Basten, now back in the Holland set-up, was forced into early retirement at 29, because of chronic ankle problems. Ruud van Nistelrooy, who is also on Danny Blind's staff, suffered ACL injuries, the most famous of which came in 2000, six weeks into his comeback and ahead of an agreed move to Manchester United from PSV Eindhoven.
"If you're out for a long time, when you come back on the pitch you have the same feelings," Strootman explains." You know what more you have got to do to be 100 percent ready to come back on the pitch and that's some of the experience they told me about."
It can be a lonely existence training away from the first team for months on end and staying positive isn't easy after so many setbacks. Elio Capradossi, one of the top prospects of Roma's academy and who also tore his ACL, kept Strootman company.
One encouraged the other with a mix of compassion and the spirit of competition to get over their respective troubles. They shared the same doubts, the same inner demons. How do you trust your knee again after it has buckled not once but twice? Strootman worked his way back to turn out for Roma's Under-19s in February.
"Of course, it's a strange feeling," he admits. "It's not like when you play every week. It's not the same feeling. You're a little nervous, maybe a little bit afraid, but when you come back on the pitch and play a couple of minutes you cannot think about that. You've just got to think about the game otherwise for sure you will get a second injury or a fourth or a fifth. You have to focus."
Strootman scored in a 6-0 win. "Grande Kev," Radja Nainggolan tweeted. Two weeks later, the pair played alongside each other for the first time in more than a year. The roar from the home crowd, as Strootman came on for a 15-minute cameo against Palermo at Roma's Stadio Olimpico, sent shivers down the spine.
Strootman played another four times for his club before the end of the season and then captained his country in friendlies against Republic of Ireland and Austria. He admits it was "really disappointing" for Netherlands not to be at Euro 2016, although Roma fans can be forgiven for thinking it was probably for the best that he avoided the stress and strain of a major tournament.
A summer off has allowed the 26-year-old to carry on completing his recovery. Professor Pier Paolo Mariani, who performed Strootman's final surgery at Rome's Villa Stuart, a FIFA-certified medical centre of excellence, has proclaimed it one of his "all-time top 10" operations.
"Now I feel really good," Strootman says. "I got a lot of support from the club, the fans, my teammates and the medical staff. They helped me really good, especially the last time. All the people, all the physios, all the doctors, they did a great job... I just want to reach my level and pay them back for the trust they gave me. I want to repay them on the pitch."
The Strootman that Roma bought from PSV for €17.5m three years ago was emerging as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world. When he initially got injured, ahead of the 2014 World Cup, Louis van Gaal had to completely change the way Holland played.
Strootman, though, doesn't feel like a new signing now he is back again, which is indicative of his no-nonsense, matter-of-factness manner, something Roma's ownership and fans appreciate. Take his nickname, for example.
"I never call myself [The Washing Machine]," he says. "If other people want to do it, it's fine by me, but I just do my best for the team and if they give me nicknames then it's something for the fans or for the media. It's not for me to talk about that."
Strootman focuses on his football, his job. He isn't in this game to be a celebrity or a hashtag and that impression only deepens when he discusses Roma manager Luciano Spalletti: "He's a hard coach. He tells you directly what he wants from you, and that's good for us. We need that."
Although Strootman doesn't say it, instead remembering Garcia as a "great coach," who came very close to winning the Scudetto in his first year with a club record points total of 85, one of the motivating factors behind the coaching change at Roma was a perceived need for more discipline and intensity about the training ground. This season, Strootman believes Roma can go close again.
"You've got to have the ambition to play for the title," he insists. "The club is Roma! You have got to play for the title. But you have also got to be realistic. Juventus bought one of our best players in [Miralem] Pjanic and the best player from Napoli, [Gonzalo] Higuain. They have also made other big signings like [Medhi] Benatia and Dani Alves, so they have a great team. It's true they are the strongest in Italy. But we just play two times against them in the league. The other games we know we can win, and also against Juve, when we go on the pitch we want to win against them. They have stronger players maybe but we have to fight for it and find a way to beat them and also to beat the other clubs. We just have to focus on ourselves game by game."
Whatever the result, this season promises to be emotional. In June, talismanic captain Francesco Totti signed a contract extension and Roma announced he will "play on for one final season," although Strootman doesn't necessarily believe the end of his playing career is nigh.
"I'm not so sure if it's going to be his last season. We don't know," he says. "It's very special. As a kid I think a lot of players from our team had a shirt with Francesco Totti's name on the back, an AS Roma shirt or an Italy shirt. He's an idol, an example for all of us. To be with him on the pitch, to train with him and to play games with him is very special for everybody. He's a legend. Every day we can learn from him."
If Strootman could take one thing from Totti's game, what would it be? "I want his right [foot]because he can do everything with that," he says excitedly. "It's an easy choice."
After such a hard time with his left knee, seeing Strootman pull on the No. 6 shirt, which was retired in honour of club legend Aldair and un-retired 10 years later, is every bit as moving as seeing one of Totti's pinpoint passes or trademark cucchiaio scooped lobs.
Understandably there'll be a lot of talk about Totti this year, but we need to talk about Kevin because Kevin is back.
James covers the Italian Serie A and European football for ESPN FC Follow him on Twitter @JamesHorncastle.