The Croatian player who got sent home for refusing to play due to back pain.

Few would believe that I backed Croatia or Belgium to win the World Cup 2018, so you can imagine that I was really enthusiastic until the last 4 teams remained. It could have been a beautiful Belgium vs Croatia in the final! Based on common sense and analysis, I wasn’t confident that Croatia could lift the cup because of the 3 extra-time games in the knockout rounds and 1 day less rest compared to Team France. They still played bravely and made me feel like my $98 subscription fee was worth it.

Before you think that this post shouldn’t belong in this blog, please continue reading!











If you had  followed Croatia like me, read all the news and happenings on and off field, you may have remembered that there was a player who got ‘sent home for refusing to play due to back pain’. That happened during the game between Croatia and Nigeria, which Croatia won 2-0. Croatia, by then was leading 2-0 and there was only 10 minutes left to play. This player refused to get substituted into the game claiming back pain. The coach claimed that it was a recurring stunt and sent him home. Who was that player?



Nikola Kalinic, currently a striker for Inter Milan was that player. Rumour is that Atletico Madrid is about to purchase him. Why was I interested in this saga and decided to blog about it? These are 4 big questions that I ask myself when I first knew of this story:

  1. The prevalence of lower back pain in elite sportspeople
  2. Malingering – Is he faking an injury?
  3. Re-intergrating back to work – Should one be sent home just because he ‘feels like you cannot perform’?
  4. Media – Is it demonising the person suffering from back pain, or the person who we ‘think’ are malingering?

Lower back pain has been said to affect up to 85% percent of people in the world. In fact, it is frequently ranked Number One in the Global Burden of Disease. In the elite sportspeople, it is surprisingly the same. In this report that gathered data from 1000+ German elite athletes, the lifetime prevalence of back pain was 88.5%, the 12-month prevalence was 81.1%, the 3-month prevalence was 68.3%. The lifetime, 12-month and 3-month prevalences in elite athletes were significantly higher than in the control group made up of 200+ physically active non-elite sports students. Elite sportspeople do suffer from low back pain.

Some may think, Kalinic was sitting in the reserves’ bench, wearing his jersey and boots, how can be be ‘disabled’? He is clearly faking it. Well, the definition of disability is relative. If you’re a deskbound worker and lower back pain doesn’t allow you to sit for 20 minutes, you’re considered ‘disabled’. If you’re Kalinic and you cannot jump to head for a corner or twist/shoot as fast and strong as you normally can, this means you’re disabled. It was widely reported that he was faking an injury because he doesn’t want to play for only 10 minutes, he wanted to start in the game. So far I have not come across any report that says that he is truly suffering from an injury and the coach decided to select him for the 23-man squad for the World Cup. If Croatia football manager Zlatko Dalić gives him the benefit of doubt and rested him, he wouldn’t have sent him straight home. But Zlatko Dalić comes from a modest, humble coaching background with a good track record, so I doubt that he had made a wrong move.

But, WHAT IF he is really suffering from an injury?

Kalinic on bench

“Well, he looks normal, he can’t possibly be suffering from lower back pain?”

We hear that alot, patients get that alot too. Sometimes people in pain are able to move normally and are trying to get better but feel compelled to show you that they are still in pain. They move slower, walk differently, report sick leave, they demand scans to prove that their injury is real. What they really need to our empathy, to acknowledge their suffering and to be given a chance to get better. They don’t have to prove that they are suffering. They just need time and guidance.

Let’s say, Kalinic really had low back pain significant enough to affect his productivity. Should he be sent home immediately?

Taking this into context of current workplace situation, whereby a worker is recovering from lower back pain and unable to work at 100%. He may not be able to carry 20kg, stand for 4 hours, stay at work for 8 hours because physically he is still not yet ready. He is however, confident of lifting 10kg perhaps 4x per hour, stand for 4 hours in total but requires a 5min break every hour, able to stay at work for 5 hours. Should be still be ordered to continue time off work until he is 100% ready, or start working at 40% capacity and gradually build up this volume?

The research supports the latter, where the environment is supportive of gradual re-integration back into workplace. This helps the injured recover physically and mentally, where he knows that the organization supports  his recovery and gives him time to gradually get back to full capabilities. The injured person also should understand that this way of management is correct and not a negative way of benefiting the organization to ‘force’ a recovering person back to work too early. Perhaps Dalić was trying to help Kalinic get some playing time as part of his recovery but Kalinic refused?

Now, the media is really getting out of hand and everyone is making fun of Kalinic, even before we really know the truth. What if they are wrong, does social media has the right to criticize him? unfortunately, this is how the society is today. Celebrities and sports personalities undergo tremendous amount of pressure to perform and do good. You just need to make 1 mistake to be criticized by everyone.

Now they are considering if he should even receive his 2nd place medal. News have reported that he was even mocked at by his country’s fans. Not a good time to be Kalinic.

Me? I don’t want to judge him but just hope to see him in Atletico Madrid colours when they play against Arsenal at Singapore Sports Hub in one week time!

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