The ugly consequences of the beautiful game

Image credit: Bill Henderson

Rightly or wrongly, English football has been perennially typified as a game of long balls; an uncivilized battle of head tennis whereby one team lumps the ball up to a lanky target man, only for a legion of equally beefy centre-halves to head it back from whence it came. And so on. However, recent research showing a possible link between playing football and developing dementia may cast doubt on the future of the aerial game – both in England and around the world.

A study carried out at the Institute of Neurology at University College London found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a cause of dementia stemming from trauma to the head, in the brains of former football players who contracted dementia after retirement. Out of six brains examined post mortem, four showed CTE which is present in only 12% of the general population. The buildup of sub-concussive impacts to the brain when heading the ball could generate “the development of degenerative brain pathologies in later life” according to Dr. Helen Ling, senior research associate.

On Sunday, these issues were further brought to light by a BBC documentary focused on dementia in football. All-time Premier League leading goal-scorer, Alan Shearer, anxiously explored just what the price of his 43 headed goals may turn out to be, explaining that “As someone who played the game for 20 years, and sometimes headed the ball up to 100 times a day in training, I knew that if there was a danger, then I was one of those who could be at risk”.

Undergoing an MRI scan, no abnormalities were detected in Mr. Shearer’s brain, but it seems beyond doubt that heading has had serious ramifications in the past. Principally in the case of traditional leather footballs, which doubled in weight when waterlogged, long-term damage was often inevitable; former West Brom forward Jeff Astle’s premature death at the age of 59 was famously ascribed by a coroner to a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated traumas to the head received on the football pitch.

Although modern synthetic balls are waterproofed and thus invariably light, they can travel at a much swifter pace, reaching, in the professional game, up to 70 miles per hour and so doing harm of their own; anybody who has played football, whether it be professional or amateur, knows the blunt headache of heading a clearance out of the sky on a frosty Sunday morning. And if this seemingly trivial culling of brain cells translates into a more virulent problem in the future, players everywhere may think twice before they next go up for an aerial duel.

It is easy to imagine Pep Guardiola rubbing his hands with glee at the thought of purely horizontal football. However, as Shearer points out, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) do not have the figures for dementia in the 50,000-odd footballers that they represent and so further testing is urgently required before action can be taken either way. Should a causal relationship be concretely proven, a systematic rethink of how the game is played and regulated would be likely; from reducing the amount of heading that goes on in training to outlawing it completely in matches. Already, in the USA, heading for children under the age of 12 is prohibited and this could well be a sign of things to come. Football without Peter Crouch – the patron saint, really, of the English game – heading home on a wet and windy night in Stoke, seems a sorry prospect indeed. But if the health of footballers everywhere is at risk, change may be necessary and unavoidable.


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