Tag Archives: Football

The case for NOT using your head?

There has been a series of news stories over the past week focussed on the issue of dementia and its prevalence among former professional footballers. On 17th November, it was revealed that Nobby Stiles had become the fifth member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team to die with dementia as an underlying condition on the death certificate. It’s an issue that has been coming under closer and closer scrutiny, with recent research finding that professional footballers are between two and five times more likely to die of a degenerative brain disease than the population as a whole.

Nobby Stiles, 1966 World Cup winner, who passed away in October

This issue started to come to wider prominence in 2002 following the death of former England international Jeff Astle, at the age of just 59. A post mortem examination found that Astle died as a result of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease usually diagnosed in those who have a medical history of head injury and repeated concussions. In Astle’s case, the conclusion was that his brain trauma was the result of repeated heading of footballs across his playing career, from youth to professional, international level.

Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 aged just 59 of neurodegenerative disease caused through repeated heading of footballs

Much of the research into the issue of brain injury and professional football has been led by Dr Willie Stewart from Glasgow University. Inevitably when considering a topic as complex and longitudinal as health impacts over an extended period, the issues are not straightforward. Stewart’s team has identified that the risks faced by professional footballers “ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls.” However, the study also found that footballers “had lower rates of death due to other major diseases. As such, while every effort must be made to identify the factors contributing to the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease to allow this risk to be reduced, there are also wider potential health benefits of playing football to be considered.”

For its part, the Professional Footballers Association in the UK has committed both to increasing the availability of support to former players and their families who are living with the effects of neurodegenerative disorders, and continuing to fund work of groups including Dr Stewart’s, who are seeking to better understand the risks and the most appropriate way of reducing them. There is no question of a total ban on the heading of the ball – an integral part of the game and a key skill in its own right. But just as junior football has been transformed through the introduction of small-sided games on scaled-down pitches, so it seems inevitable that there will eventually have to be limits placed on the extent to which children use heading as part of their coaching and playing.

Nor is this something that is restricted to former professional players. My own father played football as a centre forward up to South Wales Amateur League level. Whilst not the tallest, he was blessed with a prodigious spring in his legs that meant that he was rarely beaten in the air, scoring many headed goals initially as a wiry centre forward, and later in his career as a poacher-turned-gamekeeper centre half. He is now living with Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is at least partly due to his football playing experience. One of the saddest aspects of the disease as it has affected my dad is the fact that he no longer really has any interest in football at all. A sad irony given that Sky and BT Sport now provide more access to world-class games than at any point in his life.

Speaking to the BBC following his father’s death, Nobby Stiles’ son said : “The research should continue, there is plenty of money to do it, to make sure that current players and youngsters coming through don’t suffer the same fate as my father. But more importantly, players should be getting care and support now, substantial support and care. I don’t think you could ever take heading out of football, but at least the players should be made aware that they make a decision to play the game knowing what the risks are.”

What would Bill make of this?

Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club from 1959 to 1974, is often quoted as having said : “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that”. As a lover of the beautiful game (and long time Liverpool fan myself), I completely understand the sentiment behind this. But I can’t help feeling that even Shankly would be reconsidering and re-evaluating the relative importance of football, life and death in the context of the current conversations about plans to re-start the English Premier League. It seems somehow insensitive to be talking about football returning when UK deaths still exceed 500 a day and the total death total is now over 35,000. And if that seems somewhat removed from the world of football, it has been revealed today that there were six positive tests of players and staff at three premier league clubs from the first two days of testing this weekend.

Football is undoubtedly big business. Titles, promotion, cup wins : these are all important things and have potentially lucrative implications for the teams involved. Liverpool themselves were on the verge of clinching the premier league title when coronavirus brought an abrupt halt to the season in mid-March. It would be cruel for a team that was so dominant to be denied the title by something that is so out of their control. But – despite what Shankly may have said – at the end of the day, football is just a game. It would seem odd for matches to be re-starting (even behind closed doors and with teams having been quarantined for several weeks beforehand) when so many are still literally facing life and death struggles to survive.

Football will return eventually – with passionate fans contributing to the atmosphere that makes each game unique. There’s no rush for that to happen though, and it’s certainly not something that should be risking the welfare of players and staff in the meantime.

Ex-footballer dementia : a kick in the head

Two football stories feature in the main BBC News bulletin this evening. Alan Shearer has produced a documentary assessing whether regular heading of a football is a contributory factor for dementia later in life. It will be screened on BBC1 on Sunday 12th November and promises to make uncomfortable reading for those responsible for governing the beautiful game.

The second story covers the sacking of Patrice Evra by Olympic Marseille. Evra Aimee a kick at the head of a Marseille supporter before a European game earlier in the week. I can only assume that M. Evra had been spending too much time in heading practice.

Because he’s worth it?

A footballer is on the verge of being transferred from one European football club to another European football club. No big deal. It happens all the time. Except this is a big deal. A VERY big deal. Paris St-Germain propose to pay Eu220m (£198m) to Barcelona to secure the services of 25 year old Brazilian striker Neymar. On top of that, his wage bill will exceed £775,000 a WEEK during the 5 year contract that he has signed. The total cost to the French club (assuming he sees out the full contract) will exceed £400m.

Reaction has been predictable. Football has lost its way; the amounts involved are obscene; how can anyone possibly be worth that sort of money; and so on and so on. It’s not clear to me why £198m for Neymar is somehow more indicative of a sport that’s lost its way than the £54m that Manchester City has allegedly paid to sign Kyle Walker from Tottenham Hotspur; or the £40m that Manchester United will pay Chelsea for the services of Nemanja Matic. The sums involved are frankly ridiculous and are sustainable only because European football is increasingly seen as a vanity project for US, Russian, and middle eastern billionaires with (literally) more money than they know what to do with. Following the ‘silly money’ transfer of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid, I wrote that the concentration of wealth in a small number of European super clubs would lead inexorably to the creation of a larger European Super League, to the detriment of both domestic and grassroots football. I have no doubt that that remains the direction of travel. What’s less clear now, though, is whether that journey can be completed before the cash runs out. The old joke still has some validity : “How do you make a millionaire from a billionaire? Sell him a football club!”

Admittedly, the sovereign wealth funds underwriting the likes of Paris St-Germain and Manchester City are of a different order of magnitude from the corporate vehicles behind Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal, or the complex public:private status of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Nevertheless, its hard to see how the financial bubble growing up around much of European football can be sustained in the medium to long term.

More worrying to me, though, is the growing void that is opening up between football at the elite, professional level, and the game that is played by girls, boys, women and men in parks and recreation grounds across the country every weekend. I have written previously about my reservations around the use of video assistant referees. My objections are not just about the technology (which inevitably slows the game down and which – on the evidence so far at least – has not reduced the controversy around decisions made). Rather, my concerns are about the way in which the professional game is starting to look and feel very different to the lived experience of football at the grassroots. This is particularly the case in respect of facilities and playing conditions. It should be a national disgrace that the Football Foundation (the Premier League’s charitable development arm) invests 75% of a Matic (£30m) a year IN TOTAL into grassroots football. To put it another way, if Neymar’s move to PSG goes through, then his annual salary will be one third more than the total amount being reinvested into grassroots football in England. Inequality at that level is obscene, but worse than that, it will prove to be ultimately self-defeating.


Bordeaux or Bust!

So – it’s finally arrived. That moment that I thought I would never see in my lifetime. Wales playing in a major football tournament. A real one. Not the Home Internationals. Not even the Nations Cup (remember that one?!). This is the real thing. The European Championships, for heavens’ sake. And to make things even better, it’s in France. The best place in the world to host a major sports event. The most beautiful people, cuisine to die for, wine which is the very nectar of the gods – and you can drive there from Wales!

Oh! And Dan and me have got tickets for Wales’ opening game against Slovakia on Saturday night.

So it was that we set out from Cardiff at 7.30pm on Thursday to catch the midnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. Brittany Ferries MV Normandie had the honour of delivering more Welshmen to the French coast in a single crossing than at any time in the last 72 years! You knew that something special was happening when the strains of Calon Lan were intermingled with that bloody awful “Football’s coming home” (I refuse to include a link – you’ll have to search for it yourself!) as we waited to board the ferry. Yes – there were one or two English supporters making the same crossing on their way to Marseille for their opener against Russia.

One of the things that being a Welsh football supporter teaches you is resilience. Resilience in the face of decades of near misses and crushing disappointment (Joe Jordan’s ‘hand of god’ moment, anybody?). But that resilience also converts in limitless optimism. This was exemplified in Portsmouth by the 30 year old VW Camper Van packed with six burly, north Walian football supporters, five of whom were already well on their way to alcohol-fuelled unconsciousness by the time we rolled onto the ferry. I genuinely hope for their sakes that that van was only for transport purposes. I dread to think what it would be like if they were planning to sleep in it too!

Arriving in Caen on a cloudy Friday morning, we set out on the 500km drive to the south west of France and Bordeaux. It took a long time on very straight roads and we didn’t see anything very interesting on the way. That’s all that needs to be said about that.

Having checked-in to our hotel, we set off for a walk along the river bank in the general direction of Bordeaux’s European Championships Fan Zone. Stopping off for some food on the way, we arrived at the fan zone in plenty of time for the local pre-match warm up entertainment on a stage in front of the biggest, sharpest giant television screen that I have ever seen.

In truth, the opening match between France and Romania wasn’t a classic. It did however, provide further evidence of the truth that football is like modern jazz. Long periods of formless cacophany punctuated by moments of the most exquisite harmony. Last night, the harmony was provided by Dimitri Payet with a goal worthy of winning the Championship, never mind the opening group game. To say that the French fans in Bordeaux were pleased would be a severe understatement!

I hope that we Wales fans get to savour a similar moment against Slovakia later today.


Pre-opening match dinner – the French recognise that beer drinkers can’t be trusted with glass!

Video referees – another nail in the coffin of the people’s game?

“A trial of the use of video assistant referees for ‘game-changing decisions’ in football will begin no later than the 2017-18 season.” The opening sentence of the BBC’s report of the International Football Association Board meeting held in Cardiff in March 2016. Newly installed FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, is quoted as saying : “We cannot close our eyes to the future but it doesn’t mean to say it will work. The flow of the game is crucial. We cannot put that in danger. That is why we have to be open to test.”

As a grass-roots football referee and somebody who has followed, played, coached and been involved in the ‘beautiful game’ for as long as I can remember, you would be forgiven for thinking that I would welcome trials of technological tools that have the stated aim of improving decision-making during matches. In fact, it is something that I am very uneasy about, for two main reasons.

Firstly, I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that the use of video technology in both rugby union and cricket is ruining those sports as spectator events, undermining the credibility of the on-field officials, and contributing very little to the conclusive determination of often marginal decisions. In cricket, for example, it seems that every run out or stumping decision now gets automatically referred to the third umpire, disrupting the flow of the game and shifting attention from the umpire and players to the TV director and the gadgetry that allows for multiple repeats from all angles and zoom-in close-ups. And even with all of that, it’s still often unclear whether a ‘catch’ has been taking cleanly or if the ball has brushed the ground before nestling into the palm of the fielder. Watching coverage of the current T20 World Cup from India has become incredibly frustrating as the tension during a tight and compelling run chase is allowed to seep away while fourteen replays confirm that the on-field umpire’s initial feeling was correct!

Similarly, in rugby union, the award of a try is delayed while the TV referee checks for foul play on the fringe of a ruck half a minute before the crucial break was made; or seeks to determine with the help of six angles and a slow-motion replay whether the critical pass was fractionally forward. An eighty minute rugby match now typically takes at least twenty minutes longer than that to complete through a combination of delays for injuries, multiple substitutions, and waiting for TV referee advice to the on-field official. And often, with the ball buried somewhere in a pile of bodies, despite all the angles available to the TV director, it’s still not possible to say conclusively whether it’s been legally grounded beyond the try line or not.

And has the use of video technology in rugby or cricket meant that all decisions are now 100% correct? Have the players and supporters of these sports stopped once and for all the heated discussions about whether a player was out or not, or whether that last-minute penalty should have been awarded? I’ll leave it to you to decide on that.

My second objection is much more philosophical, and builds on the comments of two current English Premiership managers when they were asked about the use of video technology in football earlier in the year. Roberto Martinez was quoted as saying : “We should allow the referees to make their own decisions and manage the game. Clearly if they cannot see an incident that is something they need help with. Mistaken identity for example. Those sorts of decisions I always felt video technology could be helpful, but I wouldn’t like to take the human error away from the game. Human error is part of football. It is a game of errors and how you react to these errors as a player and a referee should be exactly the same.” Mauricio Pochettino was even more emphatic : “More technology? I doubt whether it is good for football. The good thing in football is that we can speak after the game a lot about whether it was a red card or yellow card or was it offside or not offside. I think football needs to keep things important such as the human decision. I think football needs to keep its sense of the past.”

It’s interesting that both Martinez and Pochettino are foreign managers who have grown up in countries (Spain and Argentina respectively) where football’s contribution to regional and national identity and culture is at least as significant as it has been in the UK. Pochettino and Martinez emphasise the importance of the human element (including the potential for human error) as one of a recipe of ingredients that makes football the compelling drama that attracts crowds of spectators to grounds all over the world and at all levels of the game.

I would go one step further than this, suggesting that its the direct connection between the game played by the very top players at the FIFA World Cup finals, and that played by enthusiastic amateurs on their local park on a Sunday morning, that gives football it’s universal appeal. In essence, its 22 players on a rectangular pitch, with universal markings, standard sized goal-posts, a round ball, and a referee with two assistants. Wherever you go in the world, those fundamental elements  are what define football – whether on the municipal parks pitches of major UK cities, the memorial grounds of rural communities, the dust pitches of Morocco, or the covered 3G arenas of Iceland. Even children having a kick-about on a patch of scrub land can throw down a couple of jumpers for goal-posts and let their imaginations transport them to the Etihad, the Maracana, or the Camp Nou. Football is, to this extent at least, still essentially a socialist sport – accessible to all irrespective of class, gender, ability, age, or ethnicity. The introduction of technology-enhanced refereeing threatens the universality of the footballing experience, breaking the connection between the version of the game played at the elite level and that played at the grass-roots. I may be a romantic, but that seems to me to be a high price to pay to ‘correct’ the handful of dodgy decisions that can truly be described as significant in the context of any given season or tournament.

Artificial distinctions based on ignorance and myopia

Regular followers of this blog will know that one of my passions is football (soccer, if you’re reading this in North America). It’s a truly social, democratic sport, in the sense that it can be played almost anywhere where there’s a patch of relatively flat ground, four jumpers/sweaters that can be put down to form goals, a minimum of two players and a ball. That’s fundamentally the only inventory that’s required for a form of football to take place.

Traditionally, football has been played on grass pitches, but these have the distinct disadvantage of getting very muddy and slippery in wet weather; and very hard and dusty during a dry spell. Neither set of conditions is really conducive to ‘good football’. And so over a long period of time, scientists and textile suppliers have been working on developing artificial playing surfaces that have all the attributes of grass, but with the added advantages of good drainage and consistent, regular playing conditions whatever the climactic conditions might be. An indirect consequence of these new surfaces is that they can be used really intensively (several times a day) without any significant deterioration in the quality of the playing surface. The most recent version of these pitches (Third Generation or 3G standard playing surfaces) are approved for use by the World Governing Body for football (FIFA) and recent qualification games for the European Football Championships in 2016 have been played on them.

I think the game's in doubt!

I think the game’s in doubt!

Unfortunately, football is administered and controlled by a lot of very conservative people. Change is never easy, and even when a proposal offers enormous benefits for players, clubs and spectators, you cannot rely on the Game to do the sensible thing. Today saw a gold-plated example of this, when the professional football club chairmen who control teams in the third and fourth tiers of football in England voted NOT to approve the use of 3G pitches for matches in their league divisions from the 2015/16 season (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/29919748). The decision, when it came, was actually something of a surprise, given that the a majority of those voting today had given a clear indication as recently as September, that they would be supporting the proposal. The reasons for the change of heart are shrouded in mystery, but a contributory factor appears to have been fears about the safety of 3G pitches when compared with grass.

The same yesterday, today and for at least two or three years!

The same yesterday, today and for at least two or three years!

It is this that annoys me about the decision, because it is based on either ignorance of the evidence that already exists about the equivalence of grass and 3G pitches when it comes to the incidence of injury per minutes played on the two surfaces (see later references); or it is a wilful ‘blindness’ to that evidence as part of some misguided belief that football has to be played on a grass pitch and that’s all there is to it.

The irony is that where clubs in other leagues (for example in the Welsh Premier League) have invested in 3G pitches, the benefits are being seen not just in terms of the quality and consistency of the playing surface, but also in terms of income streams (as the pitches are used by other teams in the local community throughout the week for games and training), and increasing the connection of the club to the local community. In both respects, clubs in Leagues 1 and 2 of the English pyramid had much to gain from allowing the use of 3G pitches – increasing their sustainability (in terms of cashflow) and their place in their communities (fulfilling the social democratic ‘bargain’ that inextricably binds a club to its people and place).

It is to be hoped that it will not take too long for common sense to prevail, and for football clubs and governing bodies at all levels to recognise that football is the world game that it is because it has constantly evolved and embraced new technologies and approaches. For this football lover at least, the days when 3G pitches are the norm cannot come too soon.

Are 3G pitches safe to play on

The studies that have been completed to date make a clear distinction between the early days of astroturf pitches that were much less safe for players than the grass equivalent, and the newer iterations of the artificial surface, including 3G pitches. For the latter, all the evidence suggests that the incidence of injury expressed in terms of hours played is not significantly different than for grass. There is some evidence that the nature of injuries may be slightly different (especially in terms of ‘wear’ injuries), but even this is weak. You can read more at the references below