By Gary Walker
A Santa Monica orthopedic physician who for several years was responsible for keeping members of the U.S. World Cup soccer team in optimal playing condition is now on a similar mission for teams from all over the world.
Dr. Bert Mandelbaum of the Santa Monica Orthopedic Group traveled to Brazil last week to take on a new role as medical director for the FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football) Medical Center of Excellence, making him the chief doctor for this year’s World Cup games.
This is Mandelbaum’s fifth World Cup — he was the U.S. team doctor in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2006 — but his first as a FIFA official.
Mandelbaum has also worked as team doctor for several Women’s World Cup U.S. teams and is currently team doctor for the Los Angeles Galaxy pro soccer team in Carson.
Over the years, his unique roles in the world of soccer have also landed him on the world stage. While traveling with the U.S. team in 1991, Mandelbaum was in Moscow during the attempted overthrow of former Russian President Mikael Gorbachev and returned home to fill in then-President Ronald Reagan on how the events unfolded. He later hung out with President Bill Clinton in South Africa.
Mandelbaum, now 60, is this year in charge of developing World Cup medical protocol for both the treatment and prevention of player injures.
“My team and I also oversee doping, and we’ve created a new plan to address heat exhaustion. For the first time in the World Cup, if temperatures reach a certain level the game with be stopped at minutes 35 and 70 for a two-minute break,” Mandelbaum said.
Soccer, however, wasn’t always his sport.
The sport of life; the life of sport
Mandelbaum, who has lived on the Westside for 28 years, played lacrosse at UCLA in the 1970s and after medical school was hired as team doctor for the school’s men’s soccer team.
Siegfried “Sigi” Schmid, the renowned German national soccer coach who played and coached at UCLA, helped Mandelbaum get his first international job.
The explosion of soccer’s popularity in the United States (call it football almost anywhere else in the world) coincided with Mandelbaum’s first few years with the men’s team and the 1994 World Cup, held at stadiums in nine cities throughout the U.S., including the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
The 2010 World Cup Final match between the Netherlands and Spain drew 24.3 million American viewers, about 9 million more than that year’s fifth and final Major League Baseball World Series game between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers.
“My career parallels the growth in soccer in the United States. I’ve seen it grow from a club sport to the rise of the professional leagues, the popularity of the women’s game and the number of people who play soccer,” Mandelbaum said.
Sports can act as a unifying force between nations and cultures, he said.
“In 1998, we were going to play against Iran. At the time, no diplomatic relations existed between the two countries,” said Mandelbaum. “Before the game, the Iranian players and our players exchanged flowers and gifts, even though that went against the protocol at the time.”
At the same time, playing sports is also about fierce personal drive and determination.
“My experience is that the sport of life and the life of sport are inextricably linked,” Mandelbaum said. “As athletes it is inherent to be the survivors of the fittest.”
Bouncing back from injury
Helping his athletes survive competition in full health is Mandelbaum’s mandate, and as team doctor for the Galaxy and various World Cup themes that mission has included post-injury rehabilitation programs and fitness protocol to prevent injury.
“As sports doctors, we try to do everything that we can to oversee the care of athletes’ injuries and their rehabilitation, and we use strategies to try and prevent as many injuries as possible,” said Mandelbaum.
In his three decades as a sports physician, Mandelbaum has seen a spike in the number of devastating ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tears suffered by athletes — especially among female soccer players.
The ligament is crucial for stabilizing the knee when an athlete makes rapid cuts or plants his or her foot, as happens frequently in football, soccer and basketball, the sports where this injury is most prominent.
“We are seeing this a lot more with women. We know that 68% of ACL tears have been non-contact injuries,” said Mandelbaum, who has conducted extensive research on the subject.
Mandelbaum believes the reason for women suffering more ACL tears than men may have something to do with neuromuscular control, which he described as the ability to be able to control one’s body when landing. The use of platelet-rich plasma in treating damage to ligaments and knees is part of a three-pronged approach that the doctor uses with all of his patients.
“One of the treatments that we use when repairing a knee is regenerative therapy. You have to look at it as a triad,” he said. “We think [platelet-rich plasma] has a tremendous amount of potential. We’ve seen its effect on professional athletes and we think it can be successful with non-athletes as well. As part of a regenerative therapy, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Warming up properly is also important.
Many of the science-based wellness programs related to ACL injury prevention involve 15 to 20 minutes of exercises such as marching, jumping, squatting and side-to-side shuffling that, according to Dr. Eric Swart, “help to wake up the brain and nervous system” and get the entire body moving with sharper coordination.
“Neuromuscular training is just a better way to warm up,” said Swart, a resident of orthopedic surgery at Columbia University in New York who is an expert in ACL care.
Two presidents and a wizard
Mandelbaum’s medical duties for the World Cup have also put him in interesting places at interesting times in history.
“On Aug. 17, 1991, we were in Moscow when the [attempted] coup [that sought to topple Gorbachev] was happening. We were near the Red Square and didn’t know what was happening. We were right in the middle of this amazing world event, watching all of the military trucks and soldiers go by us,” he recalled. “We flew out of Russia to Munich just in time. My wife called me to tell me what was happening, and we later watched the coup attempt on CNN. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life.”
Shortly after he arrived back home, Mandelbaum was visited by President Ronald Reagan, who had been a patient at the Santa Monica clinic after a shoulder injury years earlier. Reagan quizzed Mandelbaum about the attempted coup.
“We talked for a long time. He was really interested in what happened in Moscow,” Mandelbaum said.
In 2010, President Bill Clinton accompanied the U.S. World Cup team to South Africa, where he spent time getting to know Mandelbaum and his work.
“We got to spend quite a bit of quality time together in the locker room. He watched me sew up some of the players who were hurt. He seemed interested in everything that was going on,” Mandlebaum said.
Another high-profile personality who left an impression on the doctor from his days at UCLA was basketball coach John Wooden, nicknamed “The Wizard of Westwood” because of the school’s unprecedented seven consecutive national championship wins.
“He would be at the school often and I would get the chance to listen to him philosophize about so many things. He was a great man, a great teacher. And he was a big inspiration for me,” Mandelbaum said.
This year’s U.S. team won its opening game against Ghana on Monday 2-1 in a hard-fought match, and Mandelbaum thinks the team will make a solid showing at this year’s World Cup.
We’ve come a long way. Our players have a lot of spirit and determination, and I think we’ll do very well,” he said.