Are we waiting for a player to be killed? Why FIFA has got to ban heading

Fernando Torres Atletico Madrid


If Ryan Mason or Hector Bellerin or Fernando Torres were boxers and were carried from the ring in the manner they were carried from the football field after suffering their head injuries this year there would be widespread calls for something to be done.

No one could fail to have been moved by the sight of those stricken players; Hull’s Mason hooked up to an oxygen tank, in a neck brace, being rushed to hospital for emergency surgery on a fractured skull.

Simeone heard crack from the dugout

Bellerin – whose momentum carried his exposed head into the thrusted elbow of Marcos Alonso – held his arms outright unnaturally and crashed to the turf flat on his back, spark out.

It is no exaggeration either to say many feared the worst for Torres last week. The pictures speak for themselves. Gabi – Torres’s team-mate – reached into his friend’s mouth to ensure his tongue did not slip back in his throat. That challenge against Deportivo La Coruna’s Bergantinos left the Spaniard facing a night in hospital.

For some reason in football traumatic brain injuries are considered some sort of occupational hazard.

Fernando Torres

“Fernando’s injury is another reminder of the possible serious implications that can result from a clash of heads, which can occur in any game of football or indeed any contact sport,” Luke Giggs, the director of communications at Headway – the brain injury association – told Goal in a statement.

“This incident, as well as the recent head injury involving Ryan Mason, demonstrates there is more understanding and recognition in football of the importance of ensuring all head injuries are treated with the utmost seriousness, and this has to be welcomed.

“However, there is still room for improvement in all sports, not just football, to ensure that the safety first principle of ‘if in doubt, sit it out!’ is applied in all cases of suspected concussion.”

Every time it happens, fellow players and fans send their good wishes and we move on and wait for the next one; the next one we hope will not be the “big one”. Every month of this year – so far – has brought one of these traumatic brain injury incidents right at the very top level of the game.

Torres released from hospital

Saturday saw Coventry City’s Andy Rose stretchered off after another sickening concussive blow resulting from a clash of heads with his own team-mate during a League One game against Shrewsbury.

But let’s first get out of the habit of softening the impact of these injuries by labelling them as simply “concussion”. These are brain injuries plain and simple.

Violent play has been mostly eradicated from the game due to Sepp Blatter’s well-measured legislation changes during his time as FIFA president but still overlooked is the impact participating in football has on the brain.

There is no current legislation in the Fifa Laws of the Game on how brain injuries should be treated, only guidelines, which leaves the welfare of the player in the hands of his coaches and medics.

FIFA operates a “pocket concussion recognition tool” which offers recommendations of what should be done in the event of a potential brain injury.

The FA – in fairness - announced rules in 2014 concerning the treatment of brain injuries. Any player in England who falls unconscious, or even appears to, is no longer be permitted to continue in a match.

Real Madrid stars support Torres

Any player suffering a head injury undergoes an assessment on the pitch and those who suffer two such head blows will be sent for psychometric testing. The decision of whether or not a player returns to action, moreover, belong to club medics and not members of the coaching team or the player himself.

But most of us are still stuck in a way of thinking which dictates a player with an overstretched leg muscle is substituted but one who’s had his brain jostled around his head to the point of confusion and memory loss shakes it off and stays in the game.

What is not in doubt is there would be fewer cases of players suffering brain traumas - as well as sub-concussive blows caused by heading the ball - if there were fewer aerial challenges. That’s why a complete ban on heading the ball should be considered by FIFA.

These traumatic brain injuries are only one part of the picture when it comes to banning heading. The potential dangers of continuous, long-term sub-concussive blows stemming from heading the ball has prompted US Soccer to outlaw heading for players up to the under-11 age group.

The under-12 and under-13 age groups should be “limited to a maximum of 30 minutes of heading training per week, with no more than 15-20 headers per player, per week,” according to US Soccer.

High-profile backers of these initiatives include 1999 World Cup winner Brandi Chastain and former US Men’s National Team member Taylor Twellman, who had his career ended after suffering a concussive blow for the New England Revolution against the LA Galaxy in 2008.

Mason: I feel lucky to be alive

Those legislation changes stem from a 2014 lawsuit against US Soccer, the American Youth Soccer Organization and Fifa by a group of parents and players who charged the authorities with not doing enough to ensure protection against brain injuries for young players.

The chief issue there was that repeated heading of the ball was causing more damage than was being acknowledged.

A study by the Purdue University in 2015 revealed that the impact of heading a goal kick was equivalent to a hit in American Football or a punch in the boxing ring. To prevent that sort of damage – US Soccer acted decisively.

Furthermore, according to the suit, around 50,000 concussions were suffered by high-school and collegiate players during 2010 – more than the total number for baseball, basketball, softball and wrestling combined.

Ryan Mason Ryan Mason Hull City ChelseaGetty Marcos Alonso Hector Bellerin Chelsea ArsenalGettyHector Bellerin Premier League Chelsea v ArsenalGetty

The former England international Jeff Astle died in 2002 aged only 59 and was confirmed in 2014 to be the first British professional footballer to die from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a progressive, degenerative brain disease.

CTE has been discovered in a frighteningly-high proportion of former NFL players – in 90 of 94 brains of deceased players in a study conducted by the Boston University of Sports Medicine. It is mostly associated with individuals who suffered a history of head injuries.

In Astle’s case it is believed CTE was brought on by repeated heading of old, heavy, leather footballs which would gain around 20 per cent in weight when wet.

Wenger confirms Bellerin concussion

A study published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica last month revealed football players may be prone to long-term brain damage due to repeated blows to the head. The research was carried out by University College London and Cardiff University. Post-mortems were conducted on six people who played football for an average of 25 years each. All six had dementia while CTE was evident in four.

A ban on heading would bring the simultaneous benefits of reducing the number of repeated sub-concussive blows to the head and minimising the risk of potentially deadly brain trauma injuries.

Whatever football looks like after a ban can be sorted out down the line but the alarming thing at the moment is that it appears action will only be taken when something catastrophic happens. What’s it going to take? Coma? Permanent vegetative state? Brain death?  

If we can ban tackles from behind to save players’ legs, can’t we ban what are effectively tackles in the air to save their brains?

Maybe we’ll look back in 50 years and wonder how the hell we ever let this continue so long.