Is heading in football dangerous in the long term? The Scottish Federation takes a stand by limiting it for training

If he wanted to leave AC Milan for the benefit of the Scottish championship, Olivier Giroud would have a hard time maintaining his fatal weapon: the heading game, which allowed him to score 13 of the 51 goals he scored. under the tricolor jersey, according to a count of the Blue Chronicles site. On 28 November, the Scottish Football Federation (SFA) decided to limit heading training to one session per week for all adult players, including professionals, and to ban it from training and recovery sessions the the day before and the day after a match.

To justify this measure, the SFA cites the resounding statistical study led by the University of Glasgow, published in 2019 in the New England Journal of Medicine. Based on a sample of nearly 8,000 former Scottish professional footballers, it establishes that they have developed approximately 3.5 times more neurodegenerative diseases than a comparable general population.

The study avoids any hypothesis concerning the origin of this overexposure. Of course, concussions resulting from a head impact are in the sights; It remains to be seen whether to blame only accidental violent collisions or whether to also worry about deliberate head play. According to the SFA, doubt must benefit security: “It is important to repeat that, although the study [de l’université de Glasgow] was not designed to identify the causes of this increased risk, both injuries and heading games have been suggested as possible contributing factors to neurodegenerative diseases,” John MacLean, the SFA’s senior medical consultant, said in the federation’s statement.

The French Federation conducted its own study

The sad fate of the 1966 England XI is one of the reasons British football is sensitive to the issue of brain damage. Among the players who then won the World Cup, four died of dementia. In 2020, British football hero Sue Lopez attributed her brain damage to heading. There is a lack of data concerning women’s football, lamented in 2021 William Stewart, co-responsible for the Scottish study, to the German media Deutsche Wellebut scientists generally consider that women are more prone than men to the deleterious effects of concussions.

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On the other side of the Channel, the subject is less burning, although monitored. The French Football Federation (FFF) conducted its own statistical study, published in May in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, based on a sample of some 6,100 former French professional players. Like the Scottish study, it establishes that they developed more cases of dementia than in the general population. By announcing this publication on its website, the FFF highlighted another result, namely that the practice of professional football leads to “overall under-mortality” practitioners, particularly with regard to cardiovascular diseases and cancers.

England striker Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in the 1966 World Cup final, won by England against the Federal Republic of Germany on July 30 at Wembley Stadium in London.

As for incriminating the head game, Emmanuel Orhant, medical director of the FFF and co-author of the study, claims the doubt. He notes that decades can separate the end of a career and the onset of dementia, during which time other risk factors can arise. All the more so, he adds, since the study focused on football in the 1960s and 1970s, when players, even professional ones, had a “other life” outside the fields.

“Meta-analyses fail to demonstrate the link between heading games and neurodegenerative diseases”, insists the doctor, for whom, if not “not underestimate” this assumption and respect “the precautionary principle”, no more is needed “making abrupt decisions”, lack of formal proof. And to call for additional studies.

Child protection a priority

After a rough contact on the meadow, many stars of the round ball as of the oval took the path of the cabinet of neurology of Jean-François Chermann, referent of several clubs of rugby and sports federations. In the eyes of the doctor, the most spectacular shocks are not always the most alarming: “It is better to do a few concussions, and recover each time, than to do repeated subconcussions”, or less violent shocks, the symptoms of which may be sparks in the eyes or dizziness for a few seconds. But, says the doctor, “playing with the head does not cause concussions every time, but it can happen”.

The two specialists agree on one point: children must be protected. For Emmanuel Orhant, their training must favor smaller or less inflated balls, and it is important to learn the correct technique and to strengthen the neck. The FFF doctor announces that exercise recommendations will be issued for next season. Moreover, according to him, “below 10 years, hardly anyone plays the head”. The English FA is already experimenting with banning headers in games involving children under 12. In the protocol established by the IFAB, the venerable organization that has guaranteed the laws of football for one hundred and thirty-six years, the game of heading is then sanctioned with an indirect free kick.

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FIFA, for its part, does not comment on the hypothesis of a link between heading game and brain damage, but underlines that it “reviews research in all areas of brain health” and “conducts studies on the mechanical properties of balls, exploring how these factors can influence impacts”, according to a spokesperson. FIFA also points out that, in association with the English federation, it is supporting a new study by the University of Glasgow concerning the deterioration of the cognitive functions of former players in mid-life.

The Scottish federation is pleased, in any case, that 64% of the players polled approve of the limitation of the head game during training. This measure also obtained the frank approval of the British association Headway, which is dedicated to the prevention of brain damage and the support of victims. In a statement, its interim president, Luke Griggs, applauded a “voluntarism” all the more remarkable that “Traditionally, football has feared change”.


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