Ban heads into youth football

Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo scored a beautiful goal, a powerful header, for Manchester United last weekend. He took to the air, hit the ball at the right moment and forehead to the top corner, as is. It’s one of his specialties, but he can’t practice that much anymore. Last year, the Football Association (FA) ruled that a player may not head the ball more than ten times a week on the training ground.

This was a follow-up to previous interventions in the UK, where players under the age of 12 were banned from going into training for two years. Players up to 16 years old are allowed to practice with less inflated balls. This was based on a 2019 study from the University of Glasgow that found that former footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease than people of the same age who do not play football.

Dementia from blows to the head

In addition, in England, his wife announced that the legendary former football player Sir Bobby Charlton suffers from dementia. He is the fifth England national team player to be crowned world champion in 1966 affected by this fate. In the Netherlands, Wout Holverda, once a mostly Sparta striker, passed away at the end of last year. Brain research conducted by the UMC in Amsterdam showed that his dementia resulted from blows to the head.

Since the 1990s, Dutch neuropsychologist Erich Matser has established a connection between the head and (the risk of) brain damage. The KNVB is conducting research and UEFA is testing young footballers, but there are no interventions based on the British model yet. One argument is that more research is needed, also because – as agreed in the British study – it is difficult to prove a direct and indisputable link between head and brain damage.

“responsible” titles

KNVB also states that headlines are not often used by young adults, so the ban has little effect. Another theory is that players have to learn specific head movement at an early age – which becomes more difficult later – in order to be able to drive “responsibly”. But what Ronaldo can do, apart from everyone else, is not exceptional for nothing. Less talented people are inevitably at risk, with all the potential consequences that could ensue.

Protection with helmets, as in boxing, would go a long way in a sport where most of the work is done with the foot. But banning training young players, with their brains still forming, would also be a healthy first step here. Oddly enough, it took so long after the British introduction at the start of 2020.

Commentary is Trouw’s opinion expressed by members of the editorial board and senior editors.

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