SAO PAULO – England midfielder Raheem Sterling merely was getting to where he was going, which was wherever the soccer ball happened to be. It was Uruguay defender Alvaro Pereira who slid toward him and accidentally placed his head into the oncoming path of Sterling’s knee. As long as there are to be team sports, there will be unfortunate coincidences such as this.
It was easy to miss the impact live because one’s eyes were on Sterling’s pursuit of the ball, but the stadium replay board at Arena Corinthians gave everyone an opportunity to relive the few seconds that had just passed. There were gasps at the sight of Sterling’s knee boring into Pereira’s temple.
These incidents can have life-altering effects, as ESPN soccer analyst Taylor Twellman can tell you. Or, the impact can be tragic, which is why it was so alarming to see what occurred after Pereira, and motionless on the turf for an uncomfortably long period during Thursday afternoon’s World Cup game, as teammates Diego Godin and Fernando Muslera stood over him, finally was able to climb to his feet.
He insisted on playing. OK, we’ve seen that before. An athlete is a competitor, a warrior, and to yield when continuing seems possible can feel like quitting on one’s teammates. What is supposed to happen then, however, what happens more often in American sports now that the science on concussions has become more mainstream, is the people in charge say "No." And mean it.
Pereira, though, he won his argument. A Uruguay official, presumably a member of the medical staff, twirled his left and right index fingers in the universal soccer sign language for a substitution being necessarily, and Pereira reached to stop him, waving his finger in the official’s face like Dikembe Mutombo after rejecting a layup. Pereira was rejecting the notion he had no more soccer in him. And he returned to the game.
Uruguay star Luis Suarez, who played his first game after a five-week break following knee surgery, got a break after 88 minutes. Pereira went the full 90 – excepting, of course, the time he spent prone and possibly unconscious on the pitch.
FIFPro, the world players association, understandably was alarmed by what occurred in Sao Paulo and issued a release calling on FIFA to “conduct a thorough investigation into its own competition concussion protocol,” saying it wants the ruling authority of world soccer to guarantee player safety, “which must be priority number one, for the remainder of this tournament and beyond.”
Soccer’s issues with head trauma are somewhat different than in other sports. It starts with the fact the head is a fundamental instrument of competition; the head is used to maneuver the ball in the same way a basketball player might use his hand.
The conflict is exacerbated by the sport’s unique substitution rules. Only three players are allowed to be substituted per game, regardless of the injury circumstance. A team that spends its three subs and then has a player go down as Pereira did would not be able to replace him -- even if he could be persuaded to leave.
“It’s disappointing. It’s 2014. This is barbaric treatment of players,” Twellman said on late Thursday on ESPN. “This is the power struggle that everyone’s talking about the elite levels. This can’t happen. The player and the doctor have no business having a say in this.”
Twellman said, as FIFPro suggested in his release, that competitions at the highest levels need a medical official “that’s independent, not working for either team” to intervene when concussion is an issue.
What is Twellman’s stake in this? He was on his way to becoming the all-time goal scoring leader in Major League Soccer when he took a goalkeeper’s punch to the head while scoring on a header for the New England Revolution. He was, for all intents, never again the same player.
“August 30, 2008, my life changed forever with a traumatic brain injury,” Twellman told Sporting News in an interview last month. “And to be quite honest, that was a huge blessing because in the scheme of life, I’ve learned a lot about myself during this time.”
He also has tried to teach others about the dangers of attempting to play through something as dangerous as what occurred in his circumstance, with what happened Thursday to Pereira. Twellman appeared with former NFL player LaVar Arrington at a day-long White House summit prior to the World Cup to discuss the research needed into concussive injuries.
The NFL has been scrambling the last several years to get ahead of this issue because the nature of football’s collisions carry a high risk of such injuries. The NHL has endeavored to address this, as well, given the severity of what occurred with superstar Sidney Crosby in 2011.
Twellman and those on his side, however, were kicked back a bit by the Pereira incident. Twellman mentioned on ESPN the possibility of an immediate second concussion, which could be fatal. “You’re now playing with people’s lives.”