To face the crisis of its heading problem, soccer must consider changing its rules. A ban on long goal kicks is an obvious option.
by Paul Gardner
Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about the problems posed in soccer by heading the ball.
We now know so much about the long-term effects -- particularly the behavioral problems -- that head injuries can cause. A vast amount of study has been devoted during the past 20 years to concussions: what causes them, how to treat them and -- presumably the most satisfactory resolution of the problem -- how to prevent them.
Even supposing such a viewpoint ever existed, I do not think there is anyone around today who would claim that heading is a healthy activity, that it is good for players.
The unique nature of soccer -- as the world’s most widely played sport, and as the only sport that includes deliberate use of the head to play the ball -- positions it squarely at the center of the discussions.
It seems that soccer recognizes this, and accepts the responsibility of having to do something, to take the lead among all sports by ensuring that the risk of serious head injuries in soccer is reduced to the absolute minimum.
The key word there is “seems.” Let us investigate. Just six months ago the English Football Association (FA) issued an elaborate statement -- a “guidance for heading” intended to be followed “across every level of the professional and amateur game.”
That takes in an enormous number of male and female players at all age levels. The guidance being offered, says the FA, “has been developed following multiple studies undertaken in recent months.” We can be sure, then, that the FA is spending a lot of time and money on this matter. The FA’s actions make it abundantly clear that it is convinced that the practice of heading the ball -- a fundamental part of the game and its rules -- presents a problem for the sport.
The 2021 FA statement to which I am referring can hardly be seen as a modest document: It trumpets: “We already have the most comprehensive guidelines in the world for youth football, and now we are introducing . . . the most comprehensive adult football guidelines anywhere.”
Quite possibly, though I think U.S. Soccer’s total ban on heading for younger players (age 10 and under), a ruling made in 2015, before the FA had lifted a finger, has a place here.
Lest anyone should have any doubts about the FA’s good intentions, their 2021 statement asserts, three times, that the guidance is intended to “protect player welfare.” Plus, quotes from four English soccer biggies assuring us that “the health and well-being of the players” is paramount.
There is absolutely no reason to doubt the sincerity of those statements. But a great deal of puzzlement arises when one takes a close look at what the FA is doing. I said earlier that soccer “seems” to have accepted that action is needed -- time now to assess what it is actually doing, rather than what it seems , or claims, to be doing about heading.
For starters, there are those “multiple studies” that the FA mentions. Many of them, evidently, were devoted to defining “the varying forces involved in heading a football.” One of the findings “suggests that lower forces are produced when a ball is thrown to a player rather than kicked ...” [my italics]
That doesn’t sound like it will win anyone a Nobel Prize ... yet it is a discovery considered so staggering that it is presented not as a fact, but as a suggestion. This looks like frivolity. More probably it is merely sloppy use of the language. Either way, it does nothing to boost confidence in the value of the studies. More on that topic coming up shortly.
The actions being recommended by the FA are guidelines. They are not mandatory. None of them has any effect on the game as played on the field. The game’s rules remain unaltered. The recommendations being offered are focused on training sessions. Thus the suggestion to limit the number of headers in training sessions. The logic is impeccable -- there are three or four times as many training sessions as there are actual games.
But there is a whopping contradiction involved. Another part of the FA study looks into ways of improving the technique of heading, and talks of finding ways of developing neck and torso strength “safely across the professional game” -- which would surely require more, not fewer, practice headers.
From a big contradiction the FA passes on to an enormous omission. There is no mention of collateral damage. The horrible injuries cause by head clashes and errant elbows are simply ignored. Not a word about them.
The frightening moments Raul Jimenez and the game experienced in 2020 when he suffered a skull fracture mean nothing to the FA and its experts. Something similar happened last week to Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, playing for Senegal. A bad head clash (below) -- bad enough to get the offending goalkeeper Vozinha red-carded (a rare happening, that).
Just part of the game, you see, just accidental. The famous concussion protocol will take care of such matters. Except that anyone who’s been paying attention to the cursory way the protocol is handled will have serious doubts about that. Mane was soon back on the field in that Senegal game.
We approach another serious flaw that pervades the FA’s study, research, recommendations and self-congratulations. They are all based on the assumption that heading will -- even must -- continue to be a crucial part of the sport of soccer. Nowhere in the 2021 report is the possibility of a total ban on heading, of soccer sans heading, even mentioned.
Nowhere among the repeated references to “player welfare” is there even a hint of the price of allowing players to head the ball -- and we now know that the possibility of severe brain damage and nightmare senior years hang over many players and their families. However, can that reality be ignored?
Early in my journalistic life, many many moons ago, I wrote a bunch of stories about the mounting evidence that cigarette smoking was causing lung cancer -- was, in fact, killing people. As a non-smoker, an anti-smoker, really, I suspect my hostility came over in my stories. Not too many of them got published. I learned that the battery of lawyers employed by the tobacco industry was a good deal more clever than I was. By the time I was writing, they had reached the point where they had stopped denying that the stats were damning. They were now into throwing doubt on to every study or statement that condemned smoking. Not proven, they stonewalled. Their standard defense became: “We need more research.”
What sounded like a reasonable request for certainty was simply a delaying tactic. It was used cleverly and effectively for years ... until the sheer weight and number of its own sins buried big-tobacco.
That is by way of a personal explanation of why I am so shaken to see Maheta Molango, chief executive of the PFA (the Professional Footballers’ Association, the trade union for some 5,000 pro players in England) telling us that “more research is required.”
No, no. Not more research. More action. More direct action. In telling pro players that, in a training week, they should limit themselves to just 10 “higher force” headers (definition coming up shortly), the FA is pussyfooting around at the edges of the problem.
It is delaying real action. That would mean taking a hard look at the game itself -- not the training sessions -- to see if there is any way that changes in the game’s rules could reduce the incidence of “higher force” headers.
I believe there is. Action that could be taken immediately with one simple change in the sport’s rules. Before getting to that I need to look anew at some of the research already done. This has established that the majority of headers involve low forces. Attention is therefore given to the presumably more dangerous “higher-force” headers.
These, in the FA’s definition, “are typically headers following a long pass (more than 35m) or from crosses, corners and free kicks.”
That definition must have come from the experts, but the first part of it is woefully vague and inaccurate. There are not that many 35-meter passes in the modern game. When they do occur, they usually take the form of a long cross-field aerial ball that is played into the space surrounding a relatively isolated player on the opposite flank. Such a pass is designed to hit the ground before arriving at the receiver, who thus does not have to use his head to receive or control the ball. Or the ball may be hit into space ahead of the receiver, who can thus run on to it -- again the head is unlikely to be used.
The experts are elaborating a type of pass that rarely occurs. At the same time they are ignoring a much more frequently used long ball. It is not a pass. It may sometimes be dignified with the term “clearance,” but it belongs among the crudest and ugliest of soccer’s actions. It is really a long, high kick to nowhere. Anyone who has seen just a few soccer games will recognize it as a specialty of goalkeepers. The most frequent method of taking a goal kick is to hoof the ball as long and as high as possible. For brevity’s sake, I’ll call them Ugly Goalkeeper Hoofs. UGHs.
Sometimes another euphemism is used -- “distribution” -- implying that the goalkeeper is methodically and accurately picking out team-mates with these kicks. Humbug. A large majority of these goal kicks are UGHs. Low-percentage Hail Marys. Height and distance are all that matter.
The FA expert committees are apparently unaware of their existence, for they do not appear in the FA statement. To fill this gap, I need to back-track slightly. For I am about to announce my own modest contribution to the research on heading.
More research? I’m afraid so. Then again, maybe not. This is not so much research as simply pointing out what is already there, not hidden or in obscurity, right there for all to see in every soccer game that’s played.
This is my “research.” I have taken 10 games, selected not quite at random, for I needed a mixture of different styles. So, my list includes club games (2 from MLS, 1 from the Mexican league, 2 from the English Premier League), international games (World Cup qualifiers, 2 from Europe, 1 Concacaf), 1 Copa America game, plus 1 under-20 Concacaf game.
In these 10 games, I counted a total of 201 UGHs -- or an average of approximately 20 per game. Twenty potential higher-force incidents. I feel I must labor this vital point: everyone who watches soccer games knows what happens as these UGHs fall to the ground. The average air-time for an UGH is between 3 and 4 seconds, plenty of time for players of both teams to position themselves under the dropping ball.
As the ball nears earth we get the battle for the ball. A head clash? Quite likely. Ditto for flailing elbows to bang into an opponent’s head. And my admittedly minimal stats suggest this is likely to happen around 20 times in each game.
Well, minimal the stats may be, but I feel confident they reflect a reality. That goalkeepers are heavily involved -- in every game -- in producing situations involving “higher-force headers.” The very ones that the FA is trying to limit. But only in training sessions.
When the FA’s Chief Executive Mark Bullingham talks of a “cautious approach,” one is obliged to ask “caution in whose interests?” It cannot be the players. If it were, why does the FA not immediately ban all long goal kicks -- not in training sessions, but in the real game?
A rule change banning long aimless goal kicks would immediately remove from the game an enormous number of higher-force headers -- and any collateral damage that might accompany them. (It would, incidentally, also mark an aesthetic improvement for the game by removing what are glaringly its most primitive moments).
It is a move that could be implemented overnight -- and I have no doubt that the game would quickly adapt. Such a move would firmly demonstrate that the FA’s repeated commitment to player welfare is more than just a slogan. It would also underline something that, so far, has clearly not been a part of the FA’s thinking: that the rules are not untouchable, that they can, and must, be modified to avert the danger of serious injury.
But that is not the opinion of Trevor Birch, head of the English Football League: “We must do all we can to make sure heading is practiced safely.” The words of someone who has decided that heading must stay. Whatever the cost? If these “multiple studies” begin to make it look as though heading cannot be practiced safely, then what? If prolonged Alzheimer’s or other behavioral disorders is the cost of retaining heading, who will speak up for it then? Certainly not the lawyers, whose entry into this scenario cannot, I fear, be much longer delayed.
As things stand right now, the sport of soccer has done absolutely nothing to minimize the amount of heading in the game. Yet its peripheral actions within training sessions show that it is aware of a problem.
Leadership is needed, which should be coming from FIFA. An immediate ban on long goal kicks would greatly help its own position, to say nothing of its integrity. Taking some 20 higher-force header situations out of each pro game is not a bad start because it would publicly and dramatically demonstrate more concern for the players than for the rules.
But much more needs to be done. Soccer’s reluctance to act and then, when it does creak into action, to fuss about with youth soccer and training sessions while stoutly resisting to change anything in the game as it is currently played at the top level, is utterly disgraceful.
Worse, from a purely practical -- and legal -- point of view, soccer is guilty of the most appalling negligence. It knows there is a problem, and that the problem is serious.
Its responsibility is clear. It must make its players -- all of them, millions of them, from the little kids (and, of course, their parents) up to the hardened pros -- aware of the possible dangers involved in heading the ball. And it must do all it can to reduce exposure to heading.
Which is exactly what soccer is failing to do. Yes, it is limiting headers in training sessions -- but the impact of that “guidance” is promptly undermined by soccer’s refusal to make any changes where it really matters: in the game itself. A refusal implying that the FA does not take the risks of heading all that seriously.
What soccer has shown us so far is that it is afraid to speak too clearly and openly on the topic, and that by refusing to alter its rules, it is putting the supposed sanctity of those rules ahead of the health and safety of its players.
It shames me, having to say that, but there is no escaping the way things are today with the sport to which I have been so intimately devoted for many decades.