Sakari Orava, the doctor that heals World Cup stars
PARIS (AP) — Sakari Orava is among the very few Finnish citizens to own a Champions League's gold medal.
He didn't win it on the field, but on the operating table of his medical practice in Turku, a small city on the southwest coast of Finland.
Over the years, legions of top soccer players, including David Beckham, have made the trip to Finland to go under the skilled knife of the world renowned surgeon.
His long list of patients also includes former Serbia president Boris Tadic, who charted a private jet for Orava so he could come to Belgrade and repair his Achilles tendon a few years ago.
"Last year, I actually received a few shirts from Real Madrid. They also gave me a Champions League gold medal because I had operated on two guys from Real Madrid," the 72-year-old Orava told The Associated Press in an interview last week. "Two Finnish soccer players have received it. One from Liverpool, Sami Hyypia, and the other from Ajax, Jari Litmanen, who both won the Champions League. So there are three (people) from Finland to have this medal."
Orava has performed more than 25,000 operations since the 1970s, following a short amateur boxing career during which he was crowned national champion in the featherweight division.
"It was a long time ago. I started boxing when I was 13 or 14 years old," he recalled. "I stopped when I was 18. I left school and joined the army. I have not done boxing since that. I used to inflict damage, now I'm repairing."
Serving as the national track team's physician for 30 years and as Finland's doctor at various Olympics helped him develop his vast customer base.
"The research is also important," he said. "The reports and articles, the presentations at international congresses. People know what you are doing."
Orava has been slowing down his activity in recent years and has stopped performing surgery abroad. Still regarded as one of the best top specialists in muscle and tendons injuries, he keeps working at Hospital NEO, where Barcelona forward Ousmane Dembele flew last September to undergo an operation on a damaged hamstring.
Dembele perfectly recovered and was included last week in France's World Cup squad by coach Didier Deschamps, who was also operated on by Orava when the former midfielder played for Juventus back in 1996 — two years before he won the World Cup with France.
Orava, who is credited for developing new surgery techniques in muscle tears, also treated Pep Guardiola when a thigh injury nearly ended the Manchester City manager's playing career in 1998.
"It was a long-lasting problem, quite a risky operation," said Orava, a devout Christian belonging to the Evangelic Lutheran church who often prays for his patients. "Some people said he would never come back, but he played quite a long time after that."
With only a few weeks before the World Cup starts in Russia, Orava is urging veteran players to rest in order to avoid missing one of the biggest moments of their careers. The caveat came too late for 35-year-old Brazil right back Dani Alves, who has been ruled out of the tournament with an anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained playing for Paris Saint-Germain against a third-division club.
"When they get older, players should spend more time stretching their muscles and build up their musculature to stay as strong as possible," Orava said. "Sometimes I have the feeling they play too much. They need to make pauses to rest. But it's difficult, because good players are always wanted."
Orava will be watching the World Cup, and will undoubtedly spot some of his former patients.
"It's funny when I notice a player I actually operated on doing well," he said. "It's good feedback."