Last time, I asked: “What action has soccer taken to at least reduce the incidence of head injuries in the sport?”
Well, FIFA -- which should be the body making the moves -- has done nothing. Incredibly, nothing.
Evidence has been mounting that even apparently slight concussions can have serious long-term effects. This is bad news for all sports. But soccer -- as the only sport in which the head is used to play the ball -- has inevitably received a good deal of attention.
Heading the ball (i.e. head-to-ball contact) is being closely looked at, with -- so far -- inconclusive results. At the moment, head-to-head and elbow-to-head clashes look far more indictable.
Surely, in this situation of uncertainty -- in which a “normal part of the game” is under suspicion of causing serious injuries -- FIFA should take immediate action to at least reduce the number of heading incidents.
But FIFA has done nothing like that. The game continues to be played as though the concussion research does not exist. In particular, goalkeeper violence continues unabated. As I emphasized in Part 1 of this series, goalkeeper fouls are high on the list of those likely to cause head injuries. Goalkeepers are also the cause of many heading incidents, for their long, high, aimless goal kicks (plenty of those in every game) frequently lead to players getting involved in ugly heading duels.
The only moves so far from FIFA make no attempt to cut down on head injuries. Instead, FIFA has issued a high-sounding “Concussion Protocol” telling referees and medical staff what they should do when they suspect a concussion. So soccer players worldwide are being told “You’ll still be getting the head injuries, but we’re arranging for quicker and better treatment.”
An inadequate, almost cynical, response, and an elitist one too -- fine for top pro leagues where doctors and equipment are instantly available, useless down near the base of the soccer pyramid, where most games are played, and where such help is unlikely to be on hand.
It is not to be expected that FIFA will boldly announce a ban on heading, but it urgently needs to be seen as concerned. At the moment it is clearly dragging its feet. It is denying responsibility, basically saying “There is nothing we can do.”
An insight into FIFA’s mentality came at a hearing during the so-called “soccer moms’” lawsuit that asked for a heading ban in youth soccer, and more stringent rules on medical attention. The FIFA lawyer claimed that FIFA couldn’t change the rules of the game because they are set by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), and while FIFA controls four of the board’s eight members, six votes are required for any rule changes.
To call that argument disingenuous is putting it mildly. FIFA can get what it wants from IFAB, which has long been a hopelessly servile body.
The FIFA lawyer’s statement was followed by some even more stupid statements from a lawyer for the U.S. Soccer Federation, who insisted that governing bodies cannot be blamed for injuries occurring in risky (i.e. contact) sports. Otherwise, he continued, boxing would have to ban punches to the head. Then came this: “So what’s next? Do we need to reduce the speed of running in soccer? Do we need to eliminate kicking?”
I have already pointed out that soccer’s rules do not need to be changed to diminish the threat presented by goalkeeper violence. The current rules need to be enforced. FIFA could hardly hope for a simpler precautionary measure -- something that would show that it takes concussions seriously.
The notion -- implicit in the U.S. Soccer lawyer’s position -- that governing bodies have no responsibility to ensure that their sports are not dangerously violent, is arrant nonsense. Football’s “unnecessary roughness” rule makes it clear that the NFL knows they have a responsibility to pay attention to player safety. Whether that responsibility is a moral one, or merely one taken to avoid legal charges hardly matters -- it is a reality.
As for that drivel about eliminating kicking, the U.S. Soccer lawyer should be ashamed. Cheap jokes have no place in any discussion of concussion injuries.
Fortunately, the U.S. Federation evidently does not listen to its own lawyer’s legal smart-assery. Even though the soccer moms’ lawsuit was thrown out, U.S. Soccer has implemented a ban on heading in under-11 and younger age groups, and permits the use of temporary substitutes while head-injured players are being assessed.
This remains the only positive step taken by any major soccer authority that I am aware of. U.S. Soccer deserves a lot of praise for making the move. Because the advent of concussion awareness is, in the most literal sense, a game-changer. I do believe that soccer will have to modify the way that the sport is played. This is certainly the case for goalkeepers.
Soccer -- meaning FIFA -- has now to take a hard look at how goalkeepers play the sport. At the moment they are granted an exceptional degree of freedom to commit fouls. Concussion-causing fouls. That freedom will have to be ruled out.
Giving the goalkeeper exceptional -- and privileged -- status starts in the rulebook. I have counted, in the current rulebook, 44 occasions where the word “goalkeeper” is used. That is quite a distinction for an individual player. No other player gets that treatment. There is no mention of strikers or midfielders or center backs. They are all merely “players.”
Of those 44 mentions, 11 are preceded by words like “except” or “unless” or “other than” -- exclusionary words indicating that a rule is about to be modified to accommodate the goalkeeper. This is significant, because there is no exception granted that could possibly justify keepers jumping into opponents, or diving at their feet.
I can see no alternative -- unless soccer wishes to be seen as a sport that doesn’t care about concussions (something that would no doubt benefit the lawyers) -- to a radical re-think of the keeper’s role. Of course that will not be easy, but it is necessary.
Any such re-think could do worse than to start with what the rules of soccer said in 1878. This was the first time that the word “goal-keeper” was used. His duties were defined -- he was “allowed to use his hands in defense of his goal.” A strict adherence to that requirement might be enough to make it illegal for a keeper to race out to punch away a cross some 18 yards from his goal.
A cross that far away can hardly be interpreted as a direct threat to the goal. The keeper’s responsibility would be to deal with any shot or header that results from the cross.
Of course, any change to the goalkeeper’s play will understandably meet stiff resistance from the keepers themselves.
Frankly, I do not think they have a very strong case. In Part 1, I quoted keeper Andy Gruenebaum who had lavished praise on a goalkeeper who had smashed into a forward. But Gruenebaum rather gave the game away when he said “that’s what you’re taught to do.”
Really? Is that what goalkeeper schools teach youngsters? To jump violently into opponents with knee raised? I have to ask: Have the proponents of this rough-house play really thought about what they’re advocating?
Change there must be -- and keepers might expect to gain something from it in terms of better protection in the goalmouth, maybe in the entire 6-yard area. There is plenty to be discussed, but the days of bullying, wild-west goalkeeping must be brought to an end.
I have sought the opinions of eight experienced referees -- mostly ex-referees -- on the matter of whether current goalkeeper actions break the rules. While all agreed that is the case, no one ventured to suggest that keepers should be reined in. Yet it seemed to me that all were uncomfortable with the situation.
In many ways, it is the submissive attitude of the referees themselves that is the most disappointing factor. They know -- they have to know -- that they are distorting the game by not making these calls against goalkeepers. Yet, game after game, referees perpetuate this obviously harmful tradition. I suppose that’s a case of pleasing their instructors, who then become the ones to blame.
But the blame game, as so often, gets us nowhere. All that we need to know is that the rulebook seems to disappear when goalkeepers cut up rough. That cries out for change. The looming menace of legal action makes it imperative. Can FIFA really be unaware of the $1 billion settlement the NFL has agreed with former players who charged that injuries sustained during their playing careers have resulted in various debilitating brain disorders? That’s one billion dollars.
If the suffering caused by game injuries, plus the cost of legal action are not strong enough spurs, there are other reasons why FIFA should step in. Sporting reasons that seem highly cogent to me: Allowing the goalkeeper to escape punishment for foul play is unfair, it is dangerous, and it does great damage to the integrity of the sport.