To face the crisis of its heading problem, soccer must consider changing its rules. A ban on long goal kicks is an obvious option.

Lately, I have been thinking a great deal about the problems posed in soccer by heading the ball.

We now know so much about the long-term effects -- particularly the behavioral problems -- that head injuries can cause. A vast amount of study has been devoted during the past 20 years to concussions: what causes them, how to treat them and -- presumably the most satisfactory resolution of the problem -- how to prevent them.

Even supposing such a viewpoint ever existed, I do not think there is anyone around today who would claim that heading is a healthy activity, that it is good for players.

The unique nature of soccer -- as the world’s most widely played sport, and as the only sport that includes deliberate use of the head to play the ball -- positions it squarely at the center of the discussions.

It seems that soccer recognizes this, and accepts the responsibility of having to do something, to take the lead among all sports by ensuring that the risk of serious head injuries in soccer is reduced to the absolute minimum.

The key word there is “seems.” Let us investigate. Just six months ago the English Football Association (FA) issued an elaborate statement -- a “guidance for heading” intended to be followed “across every level of the professional and amateur game.”

That takes in an enormous number of male and female players at all age levels. The guidance being offered, says the FA, “has been developed following multiple studies undertaken in recent months.” We can be sure, then, that the FA is spending a lot of time and money on this matter. The FA’s actions make it abundantly clear that it is convinced that the practice of heading the ball -- a fundamental part of the game and its rules -- presents a problem for the sport.

The 2021 FA statement to which I am referring can hardly be seen as a modest document: It trumpets: “We already have the most comprehensive guidelines in the world for youth football, and now we are introducing . . . the most comprehensive adult football guidelines anywhere.”

Quite possibly, though I think U.S. Soccer’s total ban on heading for younger players (age 10 and under), a ruling made in 2015, before the FA had lifted a finger, has a place here.

Lest anyone should have any doubts about the FA’s good intentions, their 2021 statement asserts, three times, that the guidance is intended to “protect player welfare.” Plus, quotes from four English soccer biggies assuring us that “the health and well-being of the players” is paramount.

There is absolutely no reason to doubt the sincerity of those statements. But a great deal of puzzlement arises when one takes a close look at what the FA is doing. I said earlier that soccer “seems” to have accepted that action is needed -- time now to assess what it is actually doing, rather than what it seems , or claims, to be doing about heading.

For starters, there are those “multiple studies” that the FA mentions. Many of them, evidently, were devoted to defining “the varying forces involved in heading a football.” One of the findings “suggests that lower forces are produced when a ball is thrown to a player rather than kicked ...” [my italics]

That doesn’t sound like it will win anyone a Nobel Prize ... yet it is a discovery considered so staggering that it is presented not as a fact, but as a suggestion. This looks like frivolity. More probably it is merely sloppy use of the language. Either way, it does nothing to boost confidence in the value of the studies. More on that topic coming up shortly.

The actions being recommended by the FA are guidelines. They are not mandatory. None of them has any effect on the game as played on the field. The game’s rules remain unaltered. The recommendations being offered are focused on training sessions. Thus the suggestion to limit the number of headers in training sessions. The logic is impeccable -- there are three or four times as many training sessions as there are actual games.

But there is a whopping contradiction involved. Another part of the FA study looks into ways of improving the technique of heading, and talks of finding ways of developing neck and torso strength “safely across the professional game” -- which would surely require more, not fewer, practice headers.

From a big contradiction the FA passes on to an enormous omission. There is no mention of collateral damage. The horrible injuries cause by head clashes and errant elbows are simply ignored. Not a word about them.

The frightening moments Raul Jimenez and the game experienced in 2020 when he suffered a skull fracture mean nothing to the FA and its experts. Something similar happened last week to Liverpool’s Sadio Mane, playing for Senegal. A bad head clash (below) -- bad enough to get the offending goalkeeper Vozinha red-carded (a rare happening, that).

Just part of the game, you see, just accidental. The famous concussion protocol will take care of such matters. Except that anyone who’s been paying attention to the cursory way the protocol is handled will have serious doubts about that. Mane was soon back on the field in that Senegal game.

We approach another serious flaw that pervades the FA’s study, research, recommendations and self-congratulations. They are all based on the assumption that heading will -- even must -- continue to be a crucial part of the sport of soccer. Nowhere in the 2021 report is the possibility of a total ban on heading, of soccer sans heading, even mentioned.

Nowhere among the repeated references to “player welfare” is there even a hint of the price of allowing players to head the ball -- and we now know that the possibility of severe brain damage and nightmare senior years hang over many players and their families. However, can that reality be ignored?

Early in my journalistic life, many many moons ago, I wrote a bunch of stories about the mounting evidence that cigarette smoking was causing lung cancer -- was, in fact, killing people. As a non-smoker, an anti-smoker, really, I suspect my hostility came over in my stories. Not too many of them got published. I learned that the battery of lawyers employed by the tobacco industry was a good deal more clever than I was. By the time I was writing, they had reached the point where they had stopped denying that the stats were damning. They were now into throwing doubt on to every study or statement that condemned smoking. Not proven, they stonewalled. Their standard defense became: “We need more research.”

What sounded like a reasonable request for certainty was simply a delaying tactic. It was used cleverly and effectively for years ... until the sheer weight and number of its own sins buried big-tobacco.

That is by way of a personal explanation of why I am so shaken to see Maheta Molango, chief executive of the PFA (the Professional Footballers’ Association, the trade union for some 5,000 pro players in England) telling us that “more research is required.”

No, no. Not more research. More action. More direct action. In telling pro players that, in a training week, they should limit themselves to just 10 “higher force” headers (definition coming up shortly), the FA is pussyfooting around at the edges of the problem.

It is delaying real action. That would mean taking a hard look at the game itself -- not the training sessions -- to see if there is any way that changes in the game’s rules could reduce the incidence of “higher force” headers.

I believe there is. Action that could be taken immediately with one simple change in the sport’s rules. Before getting to that I need to look anew at some of the research already done. This has established that the majority of headers involve low forces. Attention is therefore given to the presumably more dangerous “higher-force” headers.

These, in the FA’s definition, “are typically headers following a long pass (more than 35m) or from crosses, corners and free kicks.”

That definition must have come from the experts, but the first part of it is woefully vague and inaccurate. There are not that many 35-meter passes in the modern game. When they do occur, they usually take the form of a long cross-field aerial ball that is played into the space surrounding a relatively isolated player on the opposite flank. Such a pass is designed to hit the ground before arriving at the receiver, who thus does not have to use his head to receive or control the ball. Or the ball may be hit into space ahead of the receiver, who can thus run on to it -- again the head is unlikely to be used.

The experts are elaborating a type of pass that rarely occurs. At the same time they are ignoring a much more frequently used long ball. It is not a pass. It may sometimes be dignified with the term “clearance,” but it belongs among the crudest and ugliest of soccer’s actions. It is really a long, high kick to nowhere. Anyone who has seen just a few soccer games will recognize it as a specialty of goalkeepers. The most frequent method of taking a goal kick is to hoof the ball as long and as high as possible. For brevity’s sake, I’ll call them Ugly Goalkeeper Hoofs. UGHs.

Sometimes another euphemism is used -- “distribution” -- implying that the goalkeeper is methodically and accurately picking out team-mates with these kicks. Humbug. A large majority of these goal kicks are UGHs. Low-percentage Hail Marys. Height and distance are all that matter.

The FA expert committees are apparently unaware of their existence, for they do not appear in the FA statement. To fill this gap, I need to back-track slightly. For I am about to announce my own modest contribution to the research on heading.

More research? I’m afraid so. Then again, maybe not. This is not so much research as simply pointing out what is already there, not hidden or in obscurity, right there for all to see in every soccer game that’s played.

This is my “research.” I have taken 10 games, selected not quite at random, for I needed a mixture of different styles. So, my list includes club games (2 from MLS, 1 from the Mexican league, 2 from the English Premier League), international games (World Cup qualifiers, 2 from Europe, 1 Concacaf), 1 Copa America game, plus 1 under-20 Concacaf game.

In these 10 games, I counted a total of 201 UGHs -- or an average of approximately 20 per game. Twenty potential higher-force incidents. I feel I must labor this vital point: everyone who watches soccer games knows what happens as these UGHs fall to the ground. The average air-time for an UGH is between 3 and 4 seconds, plenty of time for players of both teams to position themselves under the dropping ball.

As the ball nears earth we get the battle for the ball. A head clash? Quite likely. Ditto for flailing elbows to bang into an opponent’s head. And my admittedly minimal stats suggest this is likely to happen around 20 times in each game.

Well, minimal the stats may be, but I feel confident they reflect a reality. That goalkeepers are heavily involved -- in every game -- in producing situations involving “higher-force headers.” The very ones that the FA is trying to limit. But only in training sessions.

When the FA’s Chief Executive Mark Bullingham talks of a “cautious approach,” one is obliged to ask “caution in whose interests?” It cannot be the players. If it were, why does the FA not immediately ban all long goal kicks -- not in training sessions, but in the real game?

A rule change banning long aimless goal kicks would immediately remove from the game an enormous number of higher-force headers -- and any collateral damage that might accompany them. (It would, incidentally, also mark an aesthetic improvement for the game by removing what are glaringly its most primitive moments).

It is a move that could be implemented overnight -- and I have no doubt that the game would quickly adapt. Such a move would firmly demonstrate that the FA’s repeated commitment to player welfare is more than just a slogan. It would also underline something that, so far, has clearly not been a part of the FA’s thinking: that the rules are not untouchable, that they can, and must, be modified to avert the danger of serious injury.

But that is not the opinion of Trevor Birch, head of the English Football League: “We must do all we can to make sure heading is practiced safely.” The words of someone who has decided that heading must stay. Whatever the cost? If these “multiple studies” begin to make it look as though heading cannot be practiced safely, then what? If prolonged Alzheimer’s or other behavioral disorders is the cost of retaining heading, who will speak up for it then? Certainly not the lawyers, whose entry into this scenario cannot, I fear, be much longer delayed.

As things stand right now, the sport of soccer has done absolutely nothing to minimize the amount of heading in the game. Yet its peripheral actions within training sessions show that it is aware of a problem.

Leadership is needed, which should be coming from FIFA. An immediate ban on long goal kicks would greatly help its own position, to say nothing of its integrity. Taking some 20 higher-force header situations out of each pro game is not a bad start because it would publicly and dramatically demonstrate more concern for the players than for the rules.

But much more needs to be done. Soccer’s reluctance to act and then, when it does creak into action, to fuss about with youth soccer and training sessions while stoutly resisting to change anything in the game as it is currently played at the top level, is utterly disgraceful.

Worse, from a purely practical -- and legal -- point of view, soccer is guilty of the most appalling negligence. It knows there is a problem, and that the problem is serious.

Its responsibility is clear. It must make its players -- all of them, millions of them, from the little kids (and, of course, their parents) up to the hardened pros -- aware of the possible dangers involved in heading the ball. And it must do all it can to reduce exposure to heading.

Which is exactly what soccer is failing to do. Yes, it is limiting headers in training sessions -- but the impact of that “guidance” is promptly undermined by soccer’s refusal to make any changes where it really matters: in the game itself. A refusal implying that the FA does not take the risks of heading all that seriously.

What soccer has shown us so far is that it is afraid to speak too clearly and openly on the topic, and that by refusing to alter its rules, it is putting the supposed sanctity of those rules ahead of the health and safety of its players.

It shames me, having to say that, but there is no escaping the way things are today with the sport to which I have been so intimately devoted for many decades.

10 comments about "To face the crisis of its heading problem, soccer must consider changing its rules. A ban on long goal kicks is an obvious option.".
  1. frank schoon, February 1, 2022 at 9:51 a.m.

    Ban Long goal kicks??? Why would anyone go up in the air around midfield to head a ball that you don't know where it is ending up...Who cares who wins a headball there!

    If you compare when soccer was played when the goalie just about always kicked the ball upfield, where building out from the back wasn't done much at all, injuries weren't much a problem at all.
    But today with less  long goal kicks and lots of building up from off the backfield, why is there is all of sudden more heading injuries....

    I would like to see the stats on head injuries around midfield due to long goal kicks as compared in the opponent's third...

    This is the most rediculous statement I've ever read....

  2. Jerry May replied, February 1, 2022 at 11:43 a.m.

    For someone who has an opinion on nearly every aspect of the game, Frank, I find the portion of your first sentence “Why would anyone go up in the air around midfield to head a ball…” distressing.  While there is truth to the implication that such action is misguided as a means of retaining possession, it fails to acknowledge the reality that on nearly every long ball from the GK, goal kick, punt (both UGHs in Mr. Gardner’s characterization) the ball is first played with the head.  While not always contested, as are most balls into the penalty area, they still qualify under the FA’s term, “higher force,” defined as over 35m.  Instead of banning such long kicks from the GK, one of Paul’s seemingly initial suggestions, why not simply ban playing the ball with the head on any kick over the stated distance.  The rules already ban playing the ball with portions of the body, i.e., the hands and arms below the shoulder, why not the head.  Of course, this limitation would not address the reality of when a majority of the heading related injuries occur, as both Frank and Paul imply.  Most such injuries, and at least the most severe, seem to occur on “contested” balls, into “congested areas” i.e., the penalty area, on free kicks from well outside the box, and corner kicks, during all of which the ball has traveled over 35m.  Thus, why not the distance limitation?  Sadly, not practical, for who would be responsible for determining the distance the ball traveled?  Last thing we need is for VAR to now have to add a ruler to its devices of certainty.  Comes back to the option of simply prohibiting the use of another body part in the game.  No doubt, this would remove an exciting element from the game, as what is more exciting than a spectacularly headed goal on a precise pass.  Actually, many other goals are equally exciting and do not offer the same potential for injuries.  Consequently, if player safety is truly the goal, the discussion has to include banning playing the ball with the head.  More than enough data is available that heading presents significant potential for injury, both short and long term.  Be honest, soccer governing bodies, either discuss the issue honestly, or dispense with the “player safety” homilies.


  3. frank schoon replied, February 1, 2022 at 3:31 p.m.

    Jerry, have you ever heard of trapping a high ball coming in with your feet, or going up for the ball without the intention of winning it but to make it more difficult for the opponent or if you're a smarter player back off when it is too late for the opponent to react with the result of him heading it accidentally to you. You have to be an idiot to try to win a head ball around midfield and not know when where it will end up...In the 50years that I've have coached youth, no one has ever got hurt in heading the ball, because I teach to only head the ball if you can direct or score and not to go up like a wild man for the ball, at most stop the other player by manuevering in or get body position on the opponent. There are many ways of combatting this but by your reaction you've never been taught those little tricks....

    "Why not distance limitations ?" The further the ball is away from the goal, less urgency. Just like tackling, where tackling more into play in the first third and not at midfield, the same it is for heading...

  4. Tim Schum, February 1, 2022 at 11:35 a.m.

    Paul: You've touched on one problem soccer faces in addressing the heading issue. One adjustment made years ago re heading was the wearing of a soft head band that wrapped across a player's forehead. I recall a GK in the Premier League (name escapes me at the moment) who had suffered a head injury wore such a device. I presume the idea was IF he had to head a ball or was involved in the collision, his head would be protected. Perhaps a study related to the wearing of such a device might reveal its impct on the issue at hand - head injuries related to soccer play.

    While we are at it - how ridiculous has soccer come when offisdes is measured in inches? Why not simply revise the rule to state that unless the offending player's body is completely behind the last defender that player is onsides? Soccer doesn't need less offense, it needs all it can muster. Years ago there was some discussion related to enlarging the goal size. One of the arguments against invoking it was that all the goals in the world would have to be scrapped and the newly-sized goals installed. Nothing about what such move would do in terms of adding more offense to the sport.

    The introduction of VAT to the professional game in effect admits that there is something wrong with the current offisides rule. Following FIFA's logic related to the size of goals, if every game can't have VAT equipment avaialble, change the damn rule!

  5. Kent James, February 1, 2022 at 1:42 p.m.

    While I am opposed to taking heading out of the game completely (because it adds such a different element to the game that I think makes it much more interesting), I agree that long goal kicks don't add a lot and probably create the most dangerous situations.  You could probably say the same for punts by the goalkeeper (and I think their generally higher trajectory leads to a higher impact on the header; one of my first experiences of heading in a game the goalkeeper hit a high punt with a wet leather ball (this was the 1970s), and I headed it.  While it did not knock me out, I did see stars (and my technique was pretty good).  

    I've also had stitches on two separate occasions (from clash of heads), but those were more flesh wounds than concussions (I did get knocked out on a different occasion, but that was an inadvertant elbow).  I played for about 40 years, and was always pretty good in the air.  I don't think I've suffered any long-term damage, but I'm open to the possibility.  

    So I think PG's suggestion is low-hanging fruit, and should be tried.  I think you make a rule that goalkicks cannot cross midfield in the air, or the other team gets a free kick from where it crosses the center line (of course, that might give the other team a chance to hoof it into the penalty area, but maybe deal with that if it becomes a problem (force them to play the ball backwards?).  You could allow players standing in their own half to play the ball out of the air (to avoid referees having to decide if long balls that are played were going to land in the other half), but again, that might take some experimentation.  You don't want them to be forced to play goal kicks on the ground, because some weaker teams (primarily at the youth level) might have a lot of trouble ever getting the ball out of their end).  I think you should also force goalkeepers to either distribute the ball with their hands, or play it with their feet on the ground. 

    I think such changes would eliminate the worst dangers, while still preserving the most valuable aspects of the game.  At least until there's further research....

  6. Mike Lynch, February 1, 2022 at 3:06 p.m.

    Interestingly, we have seen a signficant increase in head injuries since we scaled back our header training. I do believe technique plays a role as well as neck strength and torso activation in a properly taken header versus the "turtle" heading technique more common today where the ball hits the head much like a absorbing a punch. However, I also believe the LOTG can be altered a bit to eliminate a large portion of high velocity headers such as long goal kicks or punts which will also help reduce some head to head, head to elbow contact injuries we commonly see in the middle of the pitch. Heading the ball in the penalty area increase possibilities of head to head contact injuries too but it seems much lower than the middle of the pitch. In addition, I'd like to see the data on the slope of the arriving ball and if there is any difference in the potential head injury. In a high sloping ball such as long goal kicks and punts, the vector angle of the arriving ball makes heading the ball properly a greater challenge. Accordingly, we are undergoing our own unscientific study this spring in our internal scrimmages with low weight, soft balls for rigorous heading training, not allowing heading off a high gk punt, penalizing the player when taking a header without proper technique, and increasing our awareness and training to win the 2nd ball (try to knock down ball with chest or body or even let it go and win the opponent's header). More later! 

  7. Jeff Clarke, February 1, 2022 at 4:31 p.m.

    The only way to remove the risk of head injuries is to remove heading the ball from the game. Limiting or banning goal kicks and punts takes some of the risk away, but not all. You're still going to have contested headers, most notably on corners and other set pieces. Are those instances somehow so much more valuable to the game that we'd be willing to tolerate them while the goal kick/punt is dispensable? That seems hypocritical to me.
    It would seem to that to remove the risk, you either have to ban aerial balls or heading. Heading the ball has got to go. Yes, it will change the game but I don't see a way around this one.

  8. R2 Dad, February 4, 2022 at 1:43 p.m.

    It's only a matter of time before USSF is going to need to set aside significant funds to address this medical liability, like the NFL has. USSF instead of MLS, because USSF serves all Americans, not just professionals in one of the several hundred leagues in the US.

  9. Wayne Norris, February 6, 2022 at 4:07 p.m.

    Paul Gardner back complaining about something.....however this time painfully long rumbling.......

  10. stewart hayes, February 12, 2022 at 1:05 p.m.

    Agreed, R2.  This is definitely a problem for soccer and it is good to disuss it.  Not only are we dealing wih long term repetitive damage to our brains but neck damage resulting in athritis.  The same weighted ball is used for the male and female players which has also been shown to result in forces more likely damaging females due to bone density and muscle differences. 

    Illiminating long kicks does reduce the frequency of heading fast traveling balls.  But I have never seen a player concussed during these situtation.  What about corners or free kicks?  Once in the early 70's I saw a SDSU player drop unconscious on the grass when bravely taking a direct kick to the forehead.  In all the years I coached I only saw one concussion during play which was the result of a teammate carelessly blasting the ball at a group of his teammates horsing around during warm ups.  The player received the ball to the temple from 15 yards. 

    Awareness of the seriousness of the issue is a first start.  Concussions are a part of the game and the occur for a variety of reasons.  The soccer community needs to work on reducing the frequency and situations where they are most likely to occur.     


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