World Cup concussion show the need for education and collaboration between sports


Unless you have been on Mars for the last month, you will have noticed that the FIFA World Cup was taking place in Brazil.

It was a pretty exciting affair; the excellent Germans lifted the trophy after beating Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final, following a 7-1 humiliation of the hosts Brazil in the semi final.

Fear not though, this column is not about to become a football column.

As a sports fan I was naturally as obsessed with the competition as the rest of the globe, however as a rugby columnist there was one issue that really caught my attention – head injuries.

There were three pretty serious head injuries in the tournament, from what I remember. For Uruguay’s Alvaro Pereira against England, to Argentina’s Javier Mascherano in the semi final, and perhaps the most sickening of the lot, to Germany’s Christoph Kramer in the final.

Kramar’s head injury assumed a new level of seriousness when it later emerged that he had had to ask the referee if it in fact the final that they were playing in.

In all three cases the players returned to the field of play almost immediately, Mascherano stayed on all game, the other two were withdrawn but far, far too late and only once they had demonstrated that they were physically not up to it.

FIFA desperately needs education on the issue and then needs to spread that education. It should not take being ‘too dizzy’ to be removed from the field for concussion. It should simply be a case of ‘you’re concussed, off you come’.

This is not your typical rugby blog saying that ‘rugby is right and football is wrong’. Rugby has a long way to go on head injuries but has also come far in a relatively short space of time and we can use what we have learned in our sport.

We still have a lot to do though. The current concussion protocols are not universally approved by medical staff, and too often players are still seen returning to the field when concussed. Need I even mention Florian Fritz?

What we have done is successfully changed perceptions of concussion though. Not so very long ago players were ‘brave’ or ‘hard’ when they stayed on the field after a head injury. Now they are considered to be either behaving stupidly or to be incapable of making a sensible decision due to their injury. The power is now with the medical staff.

That would be a good place to start for football. Start work on changing attitudes, give the power to the doctor and educate people that it is foolhardy not brave to stay on after a concussion. It is dangerous.

Education is needed among fans, pundits, and commentators too, and that is true across all sports, rugby included.

I heard an argument recently that it was not the same thing letting a rugby player back on the field and a footballer. The argument being that such is the frequency of collisions and bangs to the head in rugby and the relative infrequency in football that the risks were totally different.

Not so. A concussion is a trauma to the brain and as such it becomes increasingly sensitive to another. Something as simple and innocent as a header could cause a very big problem.

The World Cup is not the first time that football has come under scrutiny for its attitude to concussion, remember Hugo Lloris the Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper last season? He refused to come off the field after a heavy blow to the head and then his manager, Andre Villas Boas, was quoted as praising the player before reacting angrily for criticism for not taking him off.

Professional sport naturally wants to play as close to the line as possible, but sport is not more important than life and death, as Bill Shankly once said it was.

Rugby has a long way to go on the issue, but the World Cup has demonstrated that football has an awful long way to go.

Perhaps it is too far fetched, by given that this is an issue of player safety where individual sports are irrelevant to the symptoms or likelihood of a repeat. Could the different governing bodies of the various different sports pool their resources to educate, research, and treat head injuries?

By Angus Savage


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