It’s time for professional soccer to change its approach to head injuries, both for the health of its players and, if that’s somehow not sufficient motivation, then for all of the kids, coaches and parents who look to professional soccer for its role models.
Soccer is big in my house. This past month was all about the World Cup for us. We watched “the beautiful game” nearly every day, we bought jerseys, we rearranged our schedules for the U.S., quarter, semi and final matches. I, the former official non-sports fan, even scolded my kids for talking so loudly I couldn’t hear the commentary during Sunday’s final. (I’m not proud of this, but it’s true.) The World Cup is soccer played at its highest level, and this month gave us much to admire: the footwork, the drive, the athleticism, the internationalism.
But the tournament’s enormous international audience saw a dark side of soccer, too: the willfully blind and dangerous disregard by FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, for head injuries sustained by its players during play.
Anyone who was watching can now recite the three most egregious examples of inappropriately treated head injuries during the tournament. Álvaro Pereira of Uruguay, knocked unconscious during an early-round match against England, who then returned to the field to play the rest of the game. Javier Mascherano of Argentina, whose head collided with that of a Dutch player in a semi-final, staggered, was caught by another player as he fell to the ground, then returned to play after only two minutes of medical evaluation. And Christoph Kramer of Germany, who received a vicious if inadvertent blow to the side of the head in the final against Argentina, fell to the ground but then played fifteen additional minutes before he was finally subbed off, supported on both sides so he could walk, with little to no focus in his eyes.
It didn’t require a doctor to see that each of these men needed a proper evaluation for a concussion before being allowed to continue to play. None of them received one. And these are just the most glaring examples from the tournament.
The current structure of FIFA’s rules leaves the call as to whether a player can remain on or return to the field up to the player and his team.