Disputes over VAR; the financial turmoil caused by Covid: the world of football has had its fair share of crises this year, said the Daily Mail. But in the past few weeks, a new controversy has arisen, which may possibly dwarf them all: the dangers relating to heading the ball. It has been frequently noted over the years that ex-footballers seem disproportionately affected by cognitive decline – five members of England’s World Cupwinning squad being the most conspicuous example, said Jeremy Wilson in The Daily Telegraph. All five developed dementia – with Sir Bobby Charlton the most recent case to emerge. The cause seems all too evident: logic dictates that regularly heading a fast-moving heavy object cannot be healthy for the brain. But scientific evidence for the phenomenon has been lacking and, in the absence of incontrovertible proof, the sport has largely been content to ignore the issue.
It can’t for much longer, said Jordan Campbell and Matt Slater on The Athletic. A 2019 study by the University of Glasgow, which examined the health records of 7,676 former Scottish footballers and those of 23,000 non-footballers of a similar socioeconomic background, found that the ex-players were three-and-ahalf times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than the non-footballers. That study didn’t prove that heading is directly responsible, said Paul MacInnes in The Guardian, but other recent research strongly suggests it is. One study by Liverpool Hope University found that players who headed the ball 20 times during a training drill were far more likely than those in a control group to fail basic pitch-side tests for concussion. In the wake of the mounting evidence, the authorities finally seem to be taking the issue more seriously. Under-12s in Britain are now discouraged from heading during practice sessions; the FA is set to fast-track trials of concussion substitutes in this season’s FA Cup, after the move was approved by the International FA Board.
Such measures only fiddle round the edges of the problem, said Graeme Souness in The Sunday Times. If heading really does increase the risk of dementia, then there’s only one logical step: banish it from football entirely. And that’s a move that would “change the game forever” – and possibly destroy its status as the world’s most popular sport. If heading were eradicated from the game, throw-ins would have to be directed below waist height; aerial crosses and corners would become virtually pointless. The move would end up making football “even more like a game of chess than it already is”. Could football survive such a seismic change of direction? Of course. But it would turn the game we know and love into something very different.