Mbabane: Scientists in the United Kingdom are studying links between constant ball heading by footballers and deaths from dementia.
What the study has unearthed currently, beyond reasonable doubt, is that heading kills. Not all the time, but some of it. The link between repeated heading of a football and degenerative brain disorders is proven, and every bit as much an industrial disease as asbestosis.
Eswatini like many countries across the globe banned asbestos as it was classified as a deadly industrial trap.
Professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to succumb to dementia as those from outside the game.
The news that Sir Bobby Charlton is now the fifth member of England’s World Cup winning team to succumb to Alzheimer’s disease, brought the inevitable outpourings of emotion and opinion.
Sports Mail reported that Dawn Astle is in the vanguard of action for football’s victims of dementia, having lost her father Jeff, a brave, bold goalscorer for English side West Bromwich Albion, to chronic traumatic encephalopathy at the age of 59. She wrote of football’s ‘criminal negligence’ on the issue, spoke of the need for concussion substitutes, for limits on heading drills in training and comprehensive care plans for those already affected.
The reality is that one cannot eliminate risk in sports. Astle admitted she does not want to see heading completely banned.
Sports Mail continued that Chris Sutton set down in harrowing detail the condition of his footballer father Mike, now 76, whose symptoms developed much earlier. He, too, spoke of protocols in training, but still decided: ‘I’m not saying heading needs to be banned altogether.
Just as the Victorians and those who built 20th century world could not see the future without asbestos, football cannot see beyond heading.
For construction and other industries with asbestos in 1930, the early cases have been recorded, the warnings made, the suspicions confirmed. There is now an irrefutable link, with further studies yielding increasing information and understanding.
And, like the laws passed in the wake of the Merewether Report, so football has passed protocols of its own, linked to heading in youth matches and training sessions. Indeed, going by the timescale of asbestos legislation, by 2089 we might be ready to face the truth. That is a lot of tragedy to endure, all because we cannot find another way to goal.
Precisely what part football played in Sir Bobby Charlton’s illness we may never know. That is the game’s escape clause right now. Some contemporaries, known for their aerial ability, have never developed dementia. And it strikes indiscriminately. Charlton is 83. There are plenty his age who suffer as he does having never headed a ball in their lives, 850 000 presently existing with the condition in the UK.
As for Charlton, heading was not even a particularly noteworthy facet of his game. He had a good leap, and could certainly play as a target-man when required — Manchester United’s first goal of the 1968 European Cup final was a Charlton header — but he was no Astle, famed for his prowess in the air above all.
Bobby’s brother, centre half Jack, also suffered dementia, but was a dogged, combative defender in the days of physical battles and aerial bombardments. Jack fits the profile of a player who might be vulnerable in later life. Bobby may simply have a genetic pre-disposition.
What sets him apart from the other victims in England’s most celebrated 1966 XI is that he is the only one called Bobby Charlton. Bobby Charlton is a national treasure. Bobby Charlton with Alzheimer’s will be noticed in a way his contemporaries are not, even if the evidence is inconclusive.
Yet the wider discussion remains mired in recrimination, compensation and care, more than prevention.
This is dangerous given that Dawn Astle says the foundation in her father’s name is beginning to hear from the families of those who played in the era after heavy, leather balls.
If this is the case, the hope the problem goes away with the passing of a generation appears remote. It may be the heading, not the ball that does the damage. And if that is the case it really does become an asbestos issue.
Hockey for example, has rules governing an aerial pass, in which there must be an obvious receiver, given five metres space to control the ball. Defenders drop off, to then make a legitimate challenge. This also avoids a crowd of players chasing and waving their sticks in the air.
A player can control the ball above shoulder height, but only if it is safe. It is an offence if two players have sticks raised, and the free hit goes to the team that did not chose to raise the ball.
Meaning it can be done. We presume that the only solution is to allow people to make choices, as boxers do, and pump Professional Footballers’ Association funds into Alzheimer’s charities to give victims a nicer window to stare out of, trapped in their strange world until death.
If we permit boxing and rugby and mixed martial arts, why interfere with football? And it is a valid argument. People have the freedom for all kinds of harmful acts like choosing to smoke.
Yet there is, possibly, another way. The aerial pass in hockey is not as significant as in football — mainly because it is not a common form of assist in goalscoring — but hockey as a sport has adapted to take into account player safety, albeit it from accidental dangerous contact, rather than long-term, unseen health issues.
If football trod the same path — if a high ball had to be brought under control rather than contested, if corners and free-kicks had to be played along the ground — would the sport be ruined? Different, certainly.
More skilled, perhaps more predictable.
There are versions of the game that do not encourage heading already: five-a-side, some seven-a-side, futsal.
And yet no one dare even contemplate it. The very idea that football may have an industrial injury issue on its hands, that it might have to change, is not considered, even by those who have lost most grievously. Like good insulation, the miracle of the near post in-swinging corner is too precious to part with.
Maybe in another 70 years. Not in our lifetime, probably. It’s a man’s game after all.