Maybe, amid the welter of La Liga, Serie A, EPL, Bundesliga, La Ligue and MLS games, you will have noticed that Spennymoor FC took on Team Solan a week or so ago.
But probably not. It was not a game that attracted much attention, Only 300 fans turned up at Spennymoor’s tiny Brewery Field (and how’s that for a soccer stadium name?). The stadium is that small because Spennymoor is a small town, way up there in northeastern England. Its soccer team plays in the National League North ... which, in the English soccer pyramid, is six levels below the Premier League.
None of that sounds too promising, so why, you will no doubt be wondering, am I making such a big deal of this Spennymoor vs. Team Solan game?
Because I genuinely believe what the BBC said about it, that it marked “an historic moment in British football.” I’ll go further. Not just British football, but all football. The entire sport of soccer, worldwide, could be fundamentally altered by what went on during those 90 minutes at the Brewery.
This was a game played by a mixture of old and young -- the oldsters with pro, some with international, experience. What made the game so special was a rule change that greatly restricted heading the ball: in the first half, heading was allowed only in the penalty areas, in the second half heading was banned completely.
I’ll ease into the story behind this no-heading experiment with a lovely human touch from Judith Gates, whose husband Bill Gates once played as a defender for Middlesbrough (over 350 games): “My husband will enjoy today but he won't remember it tomorrow.”
The almost breezy tone of that remark hides what must be a heavy sadness for Judith Gates to carry. In 2014 her husband was diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The main symptom being dementia. He now has almost no short-term memory. Dementia caused by his career as a pro soccer player?
Quite possibly, yes. The disturbing news about a link between playing soccer and late-life dementia problems is now common knowledge. Judith has watched her husband slip slowly but inevitably into the grip of severe dementia. Gates himself, aware of his illness, and its possible cause, has told his wife “I want my legacy to be that no other player or family go through what we are going through.” His wife responded by founding Head for Change, a charity with the aim of increasing awareness of the dementia problem and, of course, its links to soccer playing. It was Head for Change and the Solan Cancer Trust who organized the game.
Things went well on the field -- only once, three minutes into the game, was there an “illegal” header -- by former Leeds United player Mark Tinkler. The first goal, perversely, came from a header. But nine more non-headed goals followed in a 5-5 draw, and a shootout ensued.
But of course it was not the scoreline that mattered. A point had been made, a vital point: That soccer without heading would work, that players would have little trouble adapting, that the spectacle of soccer would shine through.
The game, of course, proved nothing. It was not a scientifically planned exercise. What it did do, one hopes, was to embarrass the soccer powers -- in England, the FA -- into at last taking serious action to reduce the amount of heading in the game. Up until now, the FA has made no changes in the game that would reduce the number of headers. Its requirement that the number of headers be reduced in practice sessions is both a feeble move, and one that seems, at the very least, laughably unenforceable.
In fact, the FA should have acted years ago, by staging a series of controlled test games -- similar to the one just played in Spennymoor.
It will, I fear, be too easy to dismiss Spennymoor 5 Team Solan 5 as an amusing diversion. Certainly the atmosphere at Brewery Field sounds like one of general bonhomie. And all the better for that, if it makes the FA realize that CTE involves people, families, that it is a horrible tragedy for all those involved.
While the FA -- and FIFA -- diddle and dawdle and take no meaningful action, they are exposing today’s players to dangers which could be appreciably lessened by sensibly reducing the role of heading in the game.
There is absolutely no excuse for not acting now. The call for “more research” is a blatant time-wasting maneuver. One that was cleverly and successfully used for years by the tobacco industry as it stonewalled accusations that its product caused lung cancer.
More than enough research has been already done to show that sport in general, soccer in particular, has a head injury problem. The attitude of soccer, now, should be one of caution. How sad, how just plain wrong, then, that the sport prefers to dodge the issue.
To return from the arrogance of the soccer authorities to the amiable Brewery Field. Just in case you’re wondering who won the headerless game’s shootout, who had the right to take home the Bill Gates Celebration Cup? Well, Spennymoor won, says The Daily Mail. The BBC says Team Solan did.
Something for everyone then. A little bit of human confusion. Actually, rather welcome when set alongside the dangerous confusion that soccer has created for itself by refusing to face up to the seriousness of its heading problem.
Although I will defer to the medical specialists and brain scientists, I will be disappointed if heading is eliminated. Heading adds a different dimension, and gives tall people something they can have an advantage with (in most areas of soccer, it's better to be small and quick). But I'm open to change if it's warranted.
It's sad to see these older guys who played back when those old leather balls weighed a ton when wet and heading back then required a much larger impact. True, newer balls can travel faster so the impact can still be substantial. I had always hoped the preference to head (vs chest the ball down) would reduce over time if the US coaches could train it out of youth players. It's only happened to a small extent, especially among less-skillful players where you might see 25+ headed balls during a match. I am not opposed to tests like the match mentioned by PG, but outlawing headed balls outside the 18s takes away tactics that make the game more dynamic. Wouldn't it make sense to start with those padded headbands that can attenuate the force of headed balls?
Gentlemen, none of that matters until we get our approach to handling concussions during games under control. Apparently, coaches often don't pull their players off the field, but keep them playing---I guess with the understanding that they can better assess head damage after the game is over? Even if you apply the soccer heading protocol to the game, it is not done at all consistently. We've all seen horrific clashes that could certainly result in a concussion and which is ignored by (1)the official on the field, (2)the player/players affected - him or her) and/or (3)the coach on the sideline. Protocols, if they exist, are ignored. It's my understanding that, the sooner you begin treating someone for a concussion, the better chance for a full recovery. Thanks, Paul, for reminding all of us of the critical need, which we know now exists, for consistency in concussion treatments and successful early treatment. Bless all of those players who have sacrificed so much!!! Now let's enforce those protocols.
I must say that for the most part amateur players, coaches and parents have been educated about the concussion protocol. I've not had any problem in the past few years neither getting those players off the field nor having to deny players getting back on (even when a doctor isn't on site).
Professional coaches seem to be the last to get onboard in this regard.
As a player, I invarably headed my brains out, due to my drive, my internal anger, and an overcompensation for a lack of high-level skill and technical guidance. I wasn't blessed with the most progressive youth coaching, but I loved the sport and at 18 yrs-old had somehow walked-on and immediately won a starting spot in a D-1 program in the early-90s. But what do they often do with a 6'2" lad--throw him in the back and 'let him win the headers.' That I could do and coaches of influence will always "use" a specific athleticism to whatever end they need.
Fearlessness will always be a prized commodity in this sport--especially if the physical side of the game is stoked (or in England, regarded as essential). Players will do whatever they need to succeed at the highest level--even if it means putting their long-term health at risk. Becoming a heading specialist wasn't exactly what I planned and am probably fortunate that another injury cut my D-1 headache soirée short...I had more than my share of concussions but within a few years was recruited by--you guessed it Mr. Gardner--some friendly Latinos for Sunday league--who in fact noticed that I had plenty of foot skills...even for a Usonian. The Colombians and Peruvians I played with probably taught me more about the sport than in all my previous years, and I could play a role closer to Busquets than to Butcher.
But brain damage? I don't doubt it. You cannot head a ball (often) punted endlessly (meaning: A LOT) as a teenager and get off Scot-free. Get it? They love their (others, that is) heading too (much).