Monday 21 October 2019

Comment: Soccer still has its head in the sand on concussion

Reaction to Karius injury betrays ignorance that shames the world's most popular sport

Liverpool’s goalkeeper Loris Karius reacts after conceding a third goal to Real Madrid during the Champions League final. Photo: Alexander Hassenstein - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
Liverpool’s goalkeeper Loris Karius reacts after conceding a third goal to Real Madrid during the Champions League final. Photo: Alexander Hassenstein - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

The History Channel is currently showing wall-to-wall documentaries on FIFA World Cups through the ages and, appropriately enough, history has helped us shine a light on some of the less revealing moments of the sepia-tinted past.

Two, in particular, stand out.

First, there are the scenes from 1958 when Pele exploded upon the world stage. After his two goals helped defeat hosts Sweden 5-2, his captain, Hilderaldo Bellini, was prompted by a photographer to hoist the Jules Rimet trophy above his head.

From that moment on, it was a snapshot of success that would be repeated by the winning captain every four years.

Then there is 1966, thinking it was all over, Geoff Hurst and the perennial quiz question about who was England's other goalscorer on that famous Wembley occasion.

The answer is Martin Peters, although sadly Martin Peters is probably one of the few people who would be able to tell you the answer.

He, along with two other members of that team - Ray Wilson, Nobby Stiles - are suffering with varying degrees of dementia; another, former Ireland manager Jack Charlton, currently unwell, has admitted to suffering with memory loss in his advancing years.

Nobody knows if concussion might have prompted their afflictions rather than, say, merely old age.

But the starkly high proportion within just one team - and those names mentioned may not be alone - suggest that it might be worth finding out.


Except football appears reluctant to do so. Perhaps when it is so difficult to find the right answers, there may seem little point in bothering to ask the right questions.

Hilderaldo Bellini didn't live to find out.

He died of a heart attack shortly after the 2014 World Cup but an autopsy would reveal he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the brain condition that, just last year, was discovered in 110 of 111 deceased NFL players.

This was no longer football's guilty secret or a source of laddish humour.

To comfort itself, football tried to exculpate itself from a lifetime of ignorance - no more than any other sport - in an attempt to forge a bright, new future where the often unknown perils of concussive blows could be treated in a more humane, controlled and empathetic environment.

But the dramatic fallout from the Champions League final has demonstrated that the sport has failed utterly in its attempts to do so.

The revelation that Lorius Karius sustained a concussion during the defeat to Real Madrid should have shone a light on a serious issue but, lamentably, it has instead revealed a sustained contempt for it.

The poverty-stricken attempts to reach for humour or incomprehension amongst supporters on social media may be forgiveable, but amongst those who should know better, less so.

On BBC Radio last Monday night, an ostrich-like reaction typified football's stance.

"Maybe he should have kept it to himself". "Maybe he should move on". "It should have been kept under wraps". "It doesn't need to be brought back up".

It was more disconsolate that one of the men offering this ill-informed opinion about what was now an accepted, medical fact was former professional Chris Sutton.

Sutton revealed last year his distress at how his father, also a former professional footballer, suffered from dementia and his anger that the authorities had persistently refuted invitations to investigate the potential links between the sport and his father's condition.

Sutton has since been at pains to stress that he did also say concussion is a "very serious thing" but his sincerity is betrayed by his other scattergun words.

Sutton, however, is not to blame; he is merely representative of his sport's ongoing ignorance and its inability to address both its past failings and present inadequacy when it comes to the treatment of head injuries.

In a multi-million pound industry where the reliance on technology and advanced scientific surgical techniques are deployed to maintain lavishly expensive playing stock, the care and attention devoted to head trauma, mild or serious, remains gravely antiquated. The fault, whether specifically in the case of Karius, or generally, lies not at the hands of the self-centred players, the highly pressurised medical staff or the obviously unqualified match officials.

The onus is on administrators to address the issue as much as players.

The laws of the game remain palpably unfit to even begin to address concussion problems, particularly when so many of them remain unknown.

Rugby has been down this road before and continues to tread an uncertain, if more enlightened, path.


Their own attempts to confront the issue has, tragically, caused death - within these shores and beyond - and their despairing efforts to regulate often ungovernable tackle laws reflects a sport that itself reacted too late to a ticking time bomb.

Ronan O'Gara, too, suffered some of the ignorant abuse now being directed at Karius when he was guilty of a high-profile error which cost the Lions a Test win in 2009; later, he revealed he wasn't "badly hurt" but was "knocked out".

Nine years later, even the often wild west territory that is the French Top 14 would not allow a repeat occurrence of that incident or, on the rare occasions it did, would not seek to demean it with crass humour or blithe ignorance.

Soccer, with its global extravaganza merely days away, must ensure it does the same or else history will keep repeating itself.

Irish Independent

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