A doc with (World Cup) fever

All photographs courtesy of Mark A. Vitale.


Mark A. Vitale was waiting for his plane to leave Brazil for the United States – and waiting. And waiting.

Why the holdup? Brazilian passengers refused to board before the conclusion of the football – that is, soccer – match between Brazil and Chile.

Welcome to World Cup fever, which Vitale and some of his pals caught during their recent visit.

“It’s one of the great sporting events in the world,” he says of the tournament, which ended July 13 with Germany triumphing over Argentina 1-0. “There’s nothing in the U.S. like the World Cup. The fans are more enthusiastic than the fans of baseball, football and basketball.”

Especially in this cup’s host country, which unfortunately collapsed against Germany in the semifinals, 7-1. “For Brazil, soccer is a religion. They’ve had so many great players, from Pelé to (the recently injured) Neymar Jr.”

Vitale – an orthopedic surgeon with ONS in Greenwich who specializes in hand, wrist and elbow treatment – had the chance to experience that enthusiasm firsthand at two of the 12 World Cup sites in Brazil. At Fortaleza, he and his friends saw Greece deny Côte d’Ivoire’s (Ivory Coast’s) sleeper team a chance to advance to the knockout round, 2-1.

Then came a biggie, the United States versus Group G rival (and ultimate champ) Germany at Recife, a match in which the Americans lost 1-0 but were still able to advance under the tournament’s point system. (They would be eliminated in the Round of 16 by Belgium, 2-1.) Nonetheless, Vitale was heartened by the Americans’ progress in a sport that is becoming more popular in this country, but that remains at present largely a children’s activity.

“The level of play was so high. If that had been years ago, we would’ve lost 6-0,” he says. “The U.S. had the second best team in its group. We were clearly better than Portugal and Ghana. And we had real stars in (goalie) Tim Howard, whose 16 saves (against Belgium) were the most in a World Cup, and (team captain) Clint Dempsey.”

He also praises U.S. team coach (and former German star) Jürgen Klinsmann, whose effectiveness and willingness to draw attention to himself as a way to take pressure off his players has been compared both as a compliment and a criticism to that of 49ers’ coach Jim Harbaugh.

“There’s no question that Klinsmann’s a genius,” Vitale says. “Tactically and strategically, he’s known as a great coach.”

Vitale, however, wasn’t just observing the matches as a fan. In his practice, he’s all too aware of the injuries that can result from a sport like soccer. A goalie such as Howard might be at risk for a hand injury from swatting away a ball that’s coming to the net with terrific speed and force.

Players of racket sports are more at risk for hand, wrist and elbow injuries, particularly wrist injuries, although Vitale notes that tennis elbow tends to be even more common among those who don’t play sports but rather engage in repetitive activities like typing.

By far the biggest medical concern with soccer is the brain. Soccer, he says, is the number two sport for concussions among youngsters, after football. Far more is known today than it was a quarter of a century ago about the relationship of concussions and subconcussive incidents to brain trauma. Recently, several stars of the 1999 U.S. World Cup women’s championship team, including Brandi Chastain, Cindy Parlow Cone and Joy Fawcett, used the global focus on soccer to call for an end to heading the ball by youngsters.

It’s a position that Vitale supports for children younger than 10, who don’t have the techniques and body control and awareness to avoid head-to-head contact. Children’s sports safety is a cause close to his heart. He’s on the board of Alexandra’s Playground, an organization founded by his brother, pediatric orthopedic surgeon Michael Vitale, and his wife, Andrea, after their daughter, Alexandra died in a sailing accident in 2008.

Sports were a big part of Mark Vitale’s youth. He played soccer and lacrosse at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, lacrosse at Tufts University and rugby on a championship team at Columbia University, where he earned his medical degree and a master’s in public health.

At Columbia, Vitale was the starting hooker (so-called because the player hooks or rakes the ball with his foot back to his teammates during the scrum.) But Vitale knows what you’re thinking.

“That probably doesn’t sound good,” he says with a laugh.


For more on Mark A. Vitale, visit onsmd.org. And for more on Alexandra’s Playground, visit alexandrasplayground.org.

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