Son Heung-min: How serious is a fractured eye socket and could a mask save his World Cup?

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The World Cup finals begin a fortnight tomorrow and for Son Heung-min, that date must feel uncomfortably close.

The Tottenham Hotspur forward would have been assured of a place in South Korea’s squad as his nation’s captain and talisman, but a fractured eye socket suffered this week has placed his availability for the sport’s biggest tournament in doubt.

Son was helped from the pitch during Tottenham Hotspur’s vital 2-1 win away to Marseille in their Champions League group finale on Tuesday, a setback that forced him to undergo an operation yesterday (Friday).

Spurs head coach Antonio Conte insisted there was “no decision on the World Cup” when asked about Son’s prospects on Friday afternoon, but the clock is clearly ticking.

South Korea begin their World Cup campaign on Thursday, November 24 against Uruguay, giving Son 19 days to prove his fitness. Two further group games, against Ghana on November 28 and Portugal on December 2, would provide more likely comeback targets.

Only after his surgery is complete will Son’s prospects of featuring in Qatar become clear, but it is a delicate balancing act.

How serious is a fractured eye socket to a footballer?

Perhaps not as bad as it sounds. Although much less common than muscle tears, a fractured eye socket, known as an orbital fracture, can be considered less serious in many cases.

Not all of them even require an operation but, as with Son, there are some fractured eye sockets that require surgical stabilisation to address the injury.

That typically sees a small metal plate attached to the skull to bring reinforcement to the damaged area. A return-to-play programme can only be shaped after surgery, through consultations with specialists.

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If there is an upside to a footballer suffering a fractured eye socket, it is the ability to continue training programmes. Fitness levels can be maintained through gym work and then non-contact work with team-mates.

The greatest obstacle to overcome in rehabilitation is arguably a psychological one. Affected players can be forgiven for having an initial and natural reluctance to head the ball or go in for aerial challenges, avoiding the dangers of aggravating the fracture. Nerve damage in the area of the face concerned is also common after surgery.

As with any injury, there will be risks and rewards to be weighed up.

Major tournaments do not come around often and there could be a willingness to play despite the fracture not being fully healed if Son, who will be almost 34 at the next World Cup in 2026, is able to wear a protective mask. That he is an attacking player, and so less likely to head the ball than a defender would be, might also work to his advantage.

How long can he expect to be out?

That will all depend on the nature of Son’s injury. A best-case scenario is an absence counted in weeks, as with Kevin De Bruyne’s facial injury in the 2021 Champions League final.

De Bruyne suffered a fractured nose and eye socket during Manchester City’s 1-0 loss to Chelsea on May 29, but within 19 days he was back in action for Belgium at the European Championship following minor surgery. The midfielder did not even require a protective mask when scoring as a substitute in a 2-1 victory over Denmark on June 17, although he was not risked in Belgium’s opening fixture against Russia five days earlier.

That same game brought an eye injury of greater severity. Belgian full-back Timothy Castagne suffered a multiple fracture that required a six-hour operation, but he was still back in Premier League action for Leicester City inside 10 weeks.

The worst-case injuries, though, can bring absences that run into months.

Napoli forward Victor Osimhen needed six plates and 18 screws fitted during surgery last November. He returned to Serie A two months later with a carbon-fibre mask, and has continued to wear one this season. Napoli’s medical team have said the device gives Osimhen a “sense of security”.

Victor Osimhen


Victor Osimhen has worn a protective mask since suffering facial injuries almost a year ago (Photo: Giuseppe Maffia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Who makes protective masks — and how?

Orthopaedic specialists make the masks and for elite footballers, it is a bespoke process. A moulding is taken of their face and from that a lightweight but very strong carbon-fibre mask is manufactured for that individual alone. That process can take between four and five days.

The mask is designed to limit damage from impact blows, offering additional protection to the damaged areas.

Masks have often been worn in the Premier League by players who have suffered broken noses as well as fractured cheekbones and eye sockets. Now-Chelsea striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has also worn one as he recovered from a broken jaw, suffered when he was robbed at home in Spain last season while playing for Barcelona.

Chelsea, who also had Diego Costa, Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas all play wearing masks, have typically used Ortholabsport, a specialist centre in the Italian city of Milan. Players were flown out especially to have masks moulded.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang


Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is one of several Chelsea players to have worn a mask (Photo: Chris Lee – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

What’s it like to wear one?

Not ideal. Peripheral vision can be affected in some cases and, as one EFL physio explained, some players “just don’t like wearing them”. Familiarity can come via wearing masks while training and those protecting a fractured eye socket are typically less intrusive than those protecting a broken nose.

Curtis Davies, the former Aston Villa, Hull City and England Under-21 defender, wore a mask in 2019-20 after suffering a broken nose playing for his current club Derby County.

“I’m sure the fact it’s his (Son’s) eye socket will be less invasive on the middle of his face, whereas mine was the nose and wasn’t flush against the skin,” Davies tells The Athletic.

“I personally struggled with my peripheral vision. If I saw the ball come from distance I struggled, and anything close to me was more difficult. It felt like I needed to take a touch and then play the ball. That was losing half a second.

“That was me as a dopey centre-half, but with Son I’m sure they would make it as less invasive as possible. He’ll be OK. He’s an attacking player that won’t be getting up to head balls every five minutes, like a centre-back in the Championship (which Davies was when he played in a mask).

“It’ll all be about his mental state as well. Will he go in for that diving header that could win South Korea a game? That’s hard to say. It’ll come down to his character.

“His opponents will also know about his injury. A defender will go aggressively against him. It’s gamesmanship. He’s one of the best in the world and if you can get half a yard because there’s the tiniest bit of fear, those are the little gains.”

(Top photo: Valerio Pennicino – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)