Dani Garavelli: Are headers really dangerous?

EVER since it became clear my middle son’s life would be dominated by the desire to send a ball up and down a sports field, my only consolation has been that it was football that captured his imagination, not rugby.

Heading the ball has been linked to neurological problems, and now a group of soccer moms have launched a class action against Fifa for carelessly and negligently failing to prevent head injuries in their sons. Photograph: TSPL

OK, so we spend a dozen hours a week ferrying him back and forth from training and several more scooping up the tiny rubber balls that litter the floors thanks to AstroTurf, but at least we don’t have to sit terrified on the sidelines while he is felled by a tackle from some great brute of a hooker.

Admittedly, at times I’ve questioned my complacency, particularly during the World Cup when Neymar fractured his vertebrae, Giorgio Chiellini suffered a tooth-related shoulder injury and Bastian Schweinsteiger ended the final with blood pouring down his face. And I was vaguely aware of controversy surrounding former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle whose death from the degenerative brain disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, was attributed to having suffered repeated sub-concussions while playing. But Astle’s death could be passed off as a freak occurrence. Compared to the persistent violence of the rugby field, football still seemed like a relatively safe way to spend 90 minutes.

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Over the past few months, however, a different picture has been presented of a sport in which committed young players are being put at risk by being encouraged to head the ball from as young as three. And however much I put my hands over my ears and ­pretend it isn’t happening, it doesn’t appear to be going away.

First, a report by MP Chris Bryant and paralympic gold medallist and member of the House of Lords Baroness Grey-Thompson called for a parliamentary investigation into head injuries in football, then expert in motor neuroscience Dr Michael Grey warned children could be at risk from “headers” because their brain and neck muscles weren’t fully developed. He said the brain starts to shake and rotate when struck by the ball. There was more; something about the impact of the brain against the skull, but at that point I caught sight of my son using his own to lob his precious ­Brazuca into the back of the net, felt squeamish and had to stop reading.

Last week, the issue bounced back into the headlines after a group of “soccer moms” launched a class action against the sports governing body Fifa for “carelessly and negligently” failing to prevent head injuries in their sons. Instead of compensation, the group wants Fifa to change the game’s rules and to establish a medical monitoring programme with free medical testing for those who believe they may have lingering concussion.

This may seem like an overreaction, but it turns out there’s quite a lot of evidence linking headers to neurological problems. In one study, scans highlighted damage to the brains of professional players. Another found 1,000 to 1,500 headers a year – three or four a day – was associated with significant damage. In the US, more attention has been paid to sports-­related brain injuries thanks to ­research and class actions involving American football where helmet clashes are common.

Last year, the NFL reached a multi-million-dollar settlement with 4,500 former players who claimed it had concealed the risks of long-term neurological damage. The class action accused the NFL of hiding research that had shown the harmful effects of concussions, while glorifying and promoting violent play. But it isn’t just soccer moms who want headers banned – or at least limited – where younger football players are concerned; Bryant and Grey-Thompson also think it’s a good idea.

Fifa seems unfazed by the NFL settlement and the FA’s new rule, which says the decision on whether or not a footballer continues to play after suffering a head injury should lie with the team doctor, has been greeted with dismay by the Astle family who say it doesn’t go far enough. So there’s no indication either organisation is about to change its ways. And nothing is likely to be achieved on a voluntary basis.

A casual mooting of the idea my son should cut down on his headers was met with the kind of scathing look that is usually reserved for the adult appropriation of teen words such as “loser”, “whatevs” and “burned”. “That’s so stupid,” he said conclusively.

Young players live for their time on the pitch. If they bag themselves a place in a boys’ club or Pro Youth team, they will cling on to it for grim life. The competition’s fierce and they know they may be dropped at any moment. If they thought it would enhance their chances of success they would walk through fire, never mind risk brain damage.

Besides, goals scored with the head are something to aspire to; no World Cup recap would be complete without a countdown of the best headed goals of the tournament (surely ­Robin van Persie’s during the Netherlands’ annihilation of Spain).

That’s the children. But adults are no more likely to co-operate. I’ve been to Saturday morning friendlies where the coaches are goading eight-year-olds to play more aggressively and where parents are screaming “lay into the f***er, son”. The idea that – on the back of this campaign – people will lighten up and say: “Best let that ball go, lad – you’ve already headed it twice this season,” is frankly absurd.

I guess in the short-term, then, nothing much will change. Except now, parents like me will have something more to worry about on match days than whether or not their child scores the winning goal and the dearth of decent toilet facilities. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1