The Surgical Football

The tumultuous emotions witnessed during the FIFA World Cup final is the everyday story of a surgeon

I must confess that while I’m not a big football fan, I jump onto the bandwagon once every four years and watch the last few matches of the world cup. And what an eclectic final we witnessed! Probably one of the greatest world cup matches ever played. Every conceivable emotion that humans are capable of experiencing came alive in a span of three hours across the globe. Joy, sorrow, hope, fear, and passion were not just simmering but boiling in the same pan. Devastatingly beautiful. The certainty of Argentina’s success was transformed almost irrevocably in a matter of minutes by the French. However, the exuberance of Mbappé’s youth was eventually silenced by the resilience and wisdom of Messi’s experience.

The morning after the dust had settled, I couldn’t help but think about the similarities between soccer and surgery. It’s a different thing that when soccer players end their careers, surgeons start theirs, but every surgery performed on the brain (if not spine) is like a football match – if not always a final, definitely a knockout. It’s you versus the tumour. Only one can win.

You need to know when to attack and when to defend. You need to find the correct corridor and get to the tumour without conceding a foul to a neighbouring blood vessel. Unlike in football, in neurosurgery there are no yellow cards, only red ones; one mistake and you’re out of the game, and there’s certainly no referee to argue with save for God. An operation is indeed akin to a football match. For most of the game you’re passing (instruments) and occasionally you’re dribbling (as some of the instruments need to be controlled by foot). There are many, many minutes of boredom and a few moments of terror. Like in football, it is those moments of terror that test your grit and grace.

Younger surgeons (the Mbappés), having just learned all the skills in the game, are often more aggressive. They walk into the operating room with their chests popping out; they have the brashness of a footballer and attack a tumour by destroying everything that comes in their way. This pugnacious attitude often works, and is, in fact, needed in the right dose, but overdoing it might harm both the player and the team.

Tempered surgeons (the Messis) know when to pick their battle. They’re gentler with tissue, and take their time to dissect and attack in short bursts when time and space is on their side. This makes them surer and more efficient even though it may seem like they may take longer to complete the task. They know how to get themselves out of trouble, something that comes only with the wisdom of experience. Like the famous surgeon and writer Atul Gawande says, “The difference between triumph and defeat, you’ll find, isn’t about willingness to take risks. It’s about mastery of rescue.” Good doctors and hospitals don’t fail less; they rescue more. Argentina were able to rescue themselves from where they were. There was a certain cockiness about France when they thought they had the win in the bag.

Taking a penalty is like removing the last bit of tumour stuck to an important artery or nerve. At that given instant, everything you’ve trained for all your life becomes important to the solution of the problem. You can’t do it later. You can’t scroll down on your phone for help. You must have the exact precision, speed, and timing for that one move. Your heart is racing beyond measure and yet your hands must be still as a rock that is oblivious of the raging winds. Everyone is watching what you’re doing on giant monitors in the operating room amidst the deafening silence of beeping monitors. Either you score or you are annihilated. And both those things can happen in the span of one operation. The emotions we witnessed in the world cup final are those that surgeons experience regularly, but thankfully, they aren’t broadcasted live on world television.

Oftentimes we score, but sometimes we stand defeated. And when we lose, we too cry like grown up footballers, but it happens in the isolation of our closed spaces. We don’t have people telling us it’s going to be okay. Like the famous surgeon René Leriche (it’s not a coincidence that he was also French) said, “Every surgeon carries within himself a small cemetery, where from time to time he goes to pray – a place of bitterness and regret, where he must look for an explanation for his failures.” Every footballer probably does the same for every penalty they miss. Every sportsperson does that for all the chances they lost. Michal Jordan once said, “I missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” And that is what Messi showed the world on that fateful Sunday. That is what surgeons across the world do when they go out each morning like gladiators stepping into the arena. “Neurosurgery is a contact sport,” the famous aneurysm surgeon Juha Hernesniemi once told me.

As we draw closer to the end of another glorious year, most of us sit back and reflect on our hits and misses, wins and losses, triumphs and disasters. We deliberate on where we went wrong and what we need to do to course correct. We forgive those who hurt us and seek forgiveness from whom we have harmed. We strive to take the next small step in the right direction. We hope that in the coming year we will be a better, stronger, gentler, and kinder version of ourselves.

We wish that each of us eventually has a story to tell, because as Gawande says, “Life is meaningful because it is a story…and in stories, endings matter.” Just like it did for Argentina and Messi.

I hope the end of 2022 allows you to start a new beginning. Here’s wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

23 Comments on “The Surgical Football
  • Dr Govind Gaikwad says:

    Great Writing Sir!
    But Our Playing Ground is always Live

  • Manoj Malkan says:

    You should have become a writer. Although it would cost us a competent Neurosurgeon, a scarcity in Mumbai. Better you practise surgery and keep on writing such interesting articles intermittently. May be sometimes later they will be published as a book. Merry Christmas

  • Supriya Correa says:

    Mazda, you’re not even halfway through your career and you’re already well on your way towards GOAT status. All through your writing, we can clearly see Messi, Pele, Maradona, Mbappe take form, why, even Federer, Nadal and Bolt make an appearance. And they’re still playing on field, oceans apart from the work you do. Enough said.

  • Dr hiten dadia says:

    Its simplicity at its best sir
    What a beautiful relation between our work & football
    Merry christmas & happy new year

  • Navzer Irani says:

    Well written in all humility. At the end of the day it’s only a ball only a game. But where you are concerned much more but I would call you the Messi of neurosurgery. Merry Christmas to you and a happy New Year filled with God’s grace.

  • Dr indu Bansal says:

    What an exceptionally beautifully articulated article.. u are a phenomenal writer . The most awaited Sunday read. Better than the Sunday brunch…

  • V G Ramesh says:

    I can’t agree more with you Mazda. I always say a small prayer as I scrub up so that things go on well. I also agree that the “mastery of rescue” is as important as aggressive surgery and it comes with experience. Apt comparison of Messi – Mbappe and young vs experience surgeons. Great writeup – one of the best from you. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  • Khorshed says:

    Simply amazing and awesome the way you compared football and neurosurgery.

  • Davis Mulaphi says:

    Amazing Doc, nice analogy. Good experience and dedication to achieving excellence makes nothing other a good doctor. You are just one of them qith passion to achieve the beat in life.
    Let this Xmas eve and the forth coming New bring more innovation in your career.
    Have a prosperous new year!@@

  • Sunil Dhiliwal says:

    I enjoyed reading this article, same as I enjoyed the final match and as a doctor I totally resonate with you regarding the comparison made between young and experience. My Sunday is incomplete without your article Mazda Ji. Keep writing and God bless you!

  • Rita singh says:

    So we’ll written doctor. But I would say that ur game is much more thrilling and important for the world then any sport.U play directly with life .any step involves not only one on the table but so many related lives.Happy new year to you and all in our group.

  • Anuradha says:

    Dear Doc

    Compliments of the Season. What a brilliant comparative analysis between a game of football and brain surgery! A step by risky step to the grand finale. A very rivetting article! Lots of best wishes to you

  • Avinash Karnik says:

    Dear Mazda,
    Compliments of the season to you and your family.
    Once again your skill of picking up the right comparison out of the blue is felt through your article.
    Besides being a brilliant Neurosurgeon having a very high successful operations, you have a heart of a sincere gentleman and make thousands of readers feel proud to realise that here we have a great writer, a successful neurosurgeon and on top of everything a gentle and honest person on the mission of saving so many lives of helpless patients. Keep up the good work and May God allow you to be his deputy in your long career. A God send.

  • Dr. Vishnu Mulchandani says:

    Our refree – court case for error in judgement / medical negligence comes after the surgery is over Thank God we too can video record – play and replay – we are operating on humans ….so no mistakes at all ..Goalkeeper is a hero till he saves goals but immediately becomes ZERO when he dives / jumps to save the goal and is completely beaten and the team loses because of that 1 goal which he misses ….regards Enjoy the festive season

  • Vipul Shah says:

    Dearest Dr Mazda sir

    Lovely comparison & very well written perfectly written piece on Football vs Neurosurgery……

    A Master writer cum Surgeon can write & co relate everything with Surgery …

    BTW have you counted how Many Goals you have scored in OT till date ……

    Sunday after Sunday it’s pleasure to Brain to read you sir

    His Bless & keep writing….

  • Marzian Mowji says:

    I am not a fan of football but even I can see the similarities.

    Just don’t underplay your skills. They are more important than a trophy in Sports. Your trophies are the people walking around after you have operated.

    🦌Merry Christmas 🎂and a🎁 Happy New Year.🎉

  • Aban Bhabha says:

    I look forward to your article every Sunday and you fill me with awe at your excellence in surgery and your skill in writing,proving the pen is mightier with your ease in writing week after week. Dr. Mazda, you are great and awesome in both surgery and writing, helping to heal the world. Happy New Year to you !

  • Anjali Patki says:

    The analogy and analysis is par excellence. Kudos on a brilliant concept and even more brilliant write up. Season’ s greetings to you and your family.

  • Arun Pushkarna says:

    Thank you Mazda. The comparison was beautifully done!
    Like so many of your readers, I too wish you many more trophies in your chosen profession. May the hand of the Creator continue to guide you!

  • T George Koshy says:

    Mazda..Loved the analogies between football and neurosurgery .the ultimate referee is God..probably one of ur best pieces of writing till date..thanks..please keep writing ..merry Christmas to u too and all the best for 2023..

  • Vispi Mistry says:

    Another masterpiece of an essay has just rolled out from your pen Mazda. The suspense you put in your words was akin to the final the world witnessed. In my books you are head and shoulder above the Messi’s and Mbapapes of this world.keep up the great work of writing and surgery.

  • Bikram Dr. Shakya says:

    Missed the final game!!!
    Love football….
    The match was as our regular job …
    Got more inspired to carry on with more zeal and fun!!!
    “… every surgery performed on the brain (if not spine) is like a football match …”

  • Lois Juma says:

    What a beautiful analogy! You nailed it Dr. Mazda


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