A matter of the heart – Niklas Brandt’s return to the football pitch

It was the 110th minute of a proper Pokal fight between 1. FC Magdeburg and Bayer Leverkusen. The second round match on October 29th 2014 had seen the Regionalliga side surprising the Bundesliga team by being well-organised and rather effective going forward. Defensive midfielder Niklas Brandt had taken a run from the mid-circle of the pitch and up towards the opponents’ penalty box. 22 meters in front of goal, the ball was finally passed onto Brandt by his teammate Nico Hammann – Brandt didn’t hesitate and sent the ball into the top left corner of the goal with a thundering shot. “He won’t hit the ball as sweetly again in his entire career,” was the first reaction of the commentator on Sky (the match was ultimately won by Bayer after a penalty shootout).

Ten months later, Brandt can look back onto a very turbulent time ever since scoring that goal. The defensive midfielder and his team continued to show good form after the DFB Pokal exit, but Brandt didn’t manage to get any more playing time during the second half of the season due to a periosteum infection and a poor recovery after an operation on his tonsils. Whilst his teammates made sure that Magdeburg got promoted to the 3. Liga, Brandt was on the sidelines fighting his own battles.

The defensive midfielder was hoping that this season could provide him with a chance of getting back into shape, making headlines in the third tier. However, during a summer endurance test, Brandt started to feel uneasy, almost falling over from the strain the exercise had put on his heart. The defensive midfielder had at times suffered from tachycardia, but this felt different.

After Brandt was brought to a hospital in Magdeburg, the treating physicians discovered that his heart has a congenital heart defect. This discovery gave the defensive midfielder two options, he told 11 Freunde:

“For a normal person this wouldn’t have been a big problem. But, being a professional athlete is dangerous (if the condition is left untreated).”

Brandt had to decide between his career or doing something else with his life. In the end, the 23-year-old decided to undergo an operation at the Centre for Heart Diseases in Leipzig, in order to fix his irregular heartbeat. During the operation, a catheter was inserted through Brandt’s groin to give him a cardiac ablation. Webmed writes about this type of procedure:

Catheter ablation, also called radiofrequency or pulmonary vein ablation, is nonsurgical and is the least invasive. Your doctor inserts a thin, flexible tube in a blood vessel in your leg or neck. Then they guide it to your heart. Your doctor uses either heat, cold, or radio energy to scar tissue inside your heart, in the location where the irregular beats are triggered. The treated tissue helps to stop your irregular heartbeat.

In his interview with 11 Freunde, Brandt openly admits that he felt queasy before and during the operation. A catheter ablation is done with local anaesthetics, allowing the patient the somewhat questionable pleasure of being conscious throughout the entire procedure.

Brandt is far from the only professional footballer who has had problems with his heart. The story of Daniel Engelbrecht, who plays with a defibrillator on him, made international headlines. During Gerald Asamoah’s matches, there needed to be a defibrillator next to the pitch due to the striker’s heart condition. The fact that other players like Marc-Vivien Foé, Antonio Puerta, and Miklós Fehér had died on the pitch did also cross Brandt’s mind, he told 11 Freunde:

“Of course, I also thought about the cases of footballers who fell over on the pitch and never got back up on their feet.”

A return to the pitch

“There’s a life after football,” Brandt told 11 Freunde, but thankfully he doesn’t have to start planning for that time just yet. One month after his operation, the 23-year-old was on the pitch in Magdeburg’s test match against VfL Wolfsburg. As if nothing had happened, Brandt scored the 2-3 goal against the reigning DFB Pokal champion, and the match was ultimately won 4-3 by the third-tier side.

Last Sunday, the defensive midfielder finally made his return to league football. In the match against Hallescher FC, his former club, Brandt had to watch his team get off to a poor start. After 27 seconds, HFC took the lead and after 16 minutes, Magdeburg’s Ahmed Waseem Razeek had to leave the pitch after being booked for the second time.

Despite the poor start to the match, FCM managed to get back into the game. In the 34th minute, striker Christian Beck levelled the score. 40 minutes later, Brandt was subbed onto the pitch for Tarek Chahed.

Two minutes into his time on the pitch, Brandt was played through by Christian Beck, but his header went slightly off target (07:20 minutes into the video above). However, only moments later, the 23-year-old managed to send Christian Beck on his way with a lovely pass, and the striker got the second goal for Magdeburg. In the end, the former European Cup Winners Cup winners won the match 2-1, which allowed them to stay in the second behind Dynamo Dresden.

After the match, Brandt told 11 Freunde that he was happy with his comeback. His goal for the coming weeks is to get back little by little, maybe even playing a few more minutes in the upcoming match against Werder II. All things considered, Brandt concludes:

“I’m simply happy that I can play.”

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Niklas Wildhagen

Niklas is a 33-year-old football writer and podcaster who has been following the Bundesliga and German football since the early 90s. You can follow him on Twitter, @normusings, and listen to his opinions on @TalkingFussball.