MARTIN SAMUEL: Headaches after just eight games? Thiago Silva’s revelation about ‘non-stop aerial duels’ should have set alarm bells ringing… is it too much to ask to explore this conversation to its logical end?
- Thiago Silva said he was suffering ‘terrible headaches’ since joining Chelsea
- The Brazilian’s claims should have rung alarm bells but the story disappeared
- We are told that modern footballs are like balloons compared to the old days
- But this generation are at risk of dementia and football must address the issue
Thiago Silva was speaking on international duty, about his new life as a centre half in England.
‘After my last two games, I’ve had a terrible headache because there are non-stop aerial duels and a very high pace of play,’ the Brazilian said.
Silva’s last two Premier League games were against Burnley and Sheffield United. We laugh, and say that is expected. He should have tried playing against the old Wimbledon.
Thiago Silva’s revelation about ‘headaches’ since joining Chelsea should have raised concern
Yet think about that. Modern footballs are like balloons, like beach balls, compared to the old days, we are told. Dementia will affect previous generations of footballers, not this one.
Yet that isn’t true. A lot of what we believe, and presume, about dementia and football isn’t true. And if Silva gets headaches from the sporadic heading in matches, what of training drills that might number 50 headers in a stretch?
But here is the strangest thing. After Silva’s revelation, the story just went away. It wasn’t widely reported, it wasn’t the catalyst for further discussion. It just dis-appeared. Had he announced he had Covid, but was asymptomatic and was isolating, it would have made headlines. Had he contracted a minor injury in training, it might have kicked up another debate about overplaying.
Yet an experienced professional, aged 36, with 660 club games and 92 international appearances, can begin experiencing extreme headaches after just eight matches in English football, and it rings no alarm bells?
But his claims about ‘non-stop aerial duels’ weren’t widely reported and simply disappeared
Earlier this month, I wrote about dementia as an industrial disease in football, much like illnesses related to asbestos. I wondered why, as links between heading and dementia become unavoidably apparent, football remained resistant to change.
I think many decades from now heading may be banned, or at least greatly reduced both in training and play.
The column drew a sizable response. On the day this newspaper launches its seven-point programme for action on dementia in football, it seemed right to reopen the conversation, and maybe bust some myths on the way. Taking aspirin is not the answer.
Some of the ideas may be the right thing to do, but we will act against heading in the knowledge the game will be worse for it. A thundering header of the type Dominic Calvert-Lewin scores is still a sight to behold. A centre half defending his box with a bandage around his head is still a hero. Not everything with risk has to be sanitised. Would any of these people trade in their career as it was? You can’t escape age and what you did with your life is imprinted. It doesn’t mean it was wrong.
No, it wasn’t wrong, Lewis, because nobody knew. That is the tragedy. It is too late for previous generations — but not for future ones. Your kids, your grandkids. I don’t want heading banned, I just think that unless we are prepared to accept what medical science is telling us, and are prepared to contemplate the ultimate step to address the problem, all this is just empty talk. Yes, we love a great headed goal, we love a bloodied hero.
Yet there comes a point when we have to balance personal cost and our amusement. And we can’t ask the players if they would trade because the ones that are fine now do not know what awaits and, by the time they do, it is too late to ask. My point is this: unless everything is on the table, nothing is.
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JOSEPHINE SUTTON: The specialist said my husband Mike had severe brain damage caused by heading footballs… if he had any realisation of what dementia has reduced him to now, I know he would feel humiliated
EXCLUSIVE: Football could soon be FORCED to introduce rules to tackle the risk of brain injury by the Government as MP admits he is ‘amazed’ that authorities have not faced a lawsuit over inaction
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ‘It was fury that drove me at the start’: Tireless campaigner Dawn Astle, daughter of former West Brom forward Jeff, wants brain degeneration in footballers to be declared an industrial disease
RICHARD THOMPSON – SURREY CHAIRMAN: Dementia is Britain’s biggest killer and something must be done… the cost of care, support and helping people must be a priority
We all love a headed goal and a bloodied hero, but there comes a point when we must balance personal cost and our amusement
If someone had said to me when I was young that I could realise my boyhood dream of becoming a professional footballer but I would die with dementia in my 60s or 70s I would have done the deal, and probably still would.
Easy to say when there is no chance of that offer, Archie.
Isn’t this about making changes that help to reduce the risk? Other sports — such as American football, motor sports, cricket and rugby — have made it safer for participants and football needs to do the same. The proof is there and to ignore it is immoral and perverse.
Exactly, Pat. There are changes that could be considered after research and study. What if headers were only permitted in the penalty area, so that the thrill of a headed goal remained but the ball wasn’t just launched upfield? How much heading would that eradicate? How much would it change the game?
If we don’t even ask the question, if we won’t do the research, how will we know? The less heading, the less need to practise heading, the fewer repetitive drills. Just explore options, that is all I am saying. There is a problem. We know that now. How do we resolve this, because doing nothing will just lead to more misery?
Football should look into how it can modify rules to prevent further deaths from brain disease
My gran had Alzheimer’s. She never headed a football in her life.
Nothing Much to Say, Glasgow
I am sorry. You must have been commenting on another article. One with the headline: ‘The only possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease is heading footballs, says world’s worst neurosurgeon.’
Still, with that alias, at least you have a firm grip on your intellectual contribution to the conversation.
Footballs nowadays are like a balloon. Years ago they were like a brick. Times have changed.
I think we can file this one under: ‘Ah, that old chestnut.’ Please read on.
Everyone commenting that balls were heavier back then should read the current research, which indicates weight has no bearing and it is velocity and associated kinetic energy transfer when heading that does the damage. So we can probably expect to see even higher rates of dementia in footballers as years go by, not a reduction. I get that people don’t like what the research is finding, but only by basing opinions on fact can there be proper open debate.
So here is Dr Willie Stewart, who is probably the leading neuro-surgeon in this field: ‘I stopped being amazed by continued repetition of the ‘old heavy, leather balls’ fallacy some time ago. The force experienced by the head during football heading is mainly influenced by the speed of the ball, rather than its mass or stiffness.
‘You could even argue that the modern synthetic ball may be more of a problem because it travels faster and doesn’t slow down, and there may be an even bigger problem for people playing in 2020 than those from 1970.’
Claims that older leather footballs did more damage because they were heavier are not true
Great idea — let’s stop all contact sports and just play darts instead. Oops, someone might get hurt by a wayward dart. Snowflakes — life is for living and breathing.
Firstly, nobody argued for banning contact sport. Secondly, we really don’t need to take lessons on individual freedom from a person residing, and one presumes by choice, under one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Try living your life as snowflakes can over here, Bill. See how far you get.
Lump-it teams would have no game plan. Most players over six foot would not be necessary. It would be the end of the game as we know it.
Warrington Blue, Warrington
It would for some, yes. That is why we love heading. It is the great equaliser. Burnley can take on Manchester City and if Pep Guardiola’s defence cannot handle the ball in the air, they are in trouble. I agree, less heading would make the game more one dimensional. But human beings are creative. If we can get to the moon, we can find other ways to goal.
Less heading would make the game more one-dimensional but we can find ways of adapting
OK, so do the science properly. Tried, tested and researched. If heading were causing dementia we would see hundreds, if not thousands, of cases directly linked to professionals and amateurs, who probably number millions on a casual basis. And women suffer with dementia far more than men according to doctors, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t run around heading footballs 40 years ago, so please explain this?
Well, we are seeing hundreds of cases, and probably thousands the more awareness grows. I would argue amateurs will not be as affected as they don’t participate in daily repetitive heading drills in training.
As for women being more susceptible to dementia, research via brain scans shows they lose brain cells at a faster rate than men in old age and, obviously, this is then compounded because women live longer. That is proper science, Charlie, proper science right there.
Stopping kids heading the ball is probably a good move, but people get old and older people tend to get dementia.
That is not actually true, Dog. Age alone does not cause dementia. It increases the risk as cells die, but dementia is not present without brain disease. And while footballers will be a small percentage of those dying from dementia, it is not a small cause of death among former footballers.
They are more than three times more likely to get it than those in other occupations.
The number of footballers affected by dementia, including Sir Bobby Charlton, is growing
If that is the case why is boxing still allowed? Even women are encouraged to have a go at it now.
Emmamorris, Stoke on Trent
Not by me they are not, Emma. I’ve covered boxing, I appreciate the sport, I understand its appeal but I wouldn’t encourage anyone, male or female, to get punched in the head for a living. I don’t think any neurosurgeon would, either.
The only thing I would love to see banned is the pernicious ‘ban everything’ brigade. I am truly grateful that my childhood and youth were spent when we were free from such tiresome interference. We learned useful skills, sorted out risk-reward ratios, and discovered the downside of being too bold or too timorous.
You are talking climbing trees and scraped knees, mate. This is industrial disease and death. Grown-up stuff.
The majority of American football players who have suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy are the linemen, the big men who get down and dirty at the line of scrimmage. The skill players who suffer from the big hits that make the ground shake and the crowd gasp are less susceptible to this form of chronic injury. It is the regular and frequent bashing of heads that causes the long-term damage — not too dissimilar to heading a football.
The Common Potato, Scunthorpe
Exactly. Football has a specific area of repetition, particularly in training, which is harmful.
Comparing asbestos deaths to heading the ball is a joke. My mother watched her father die from asbestosis and never recovered. She was paranoid about the stuff until her dying day.
Yes, my mother died from mesothelioma, that is why I recognise the similarities: an industrial disease that was not recognised for many years, in the face of mounting evidence, inconvenient truths, head in the sand resistance.
I wasn’t comparing illnesses — this isn’t a competition about who endures the worst death — more acknowledging a shared history. The dangers of asbestos went unchallenged for too long. This shouldn’t go the same route.
The repetition of footballers heading balls in training every week is particularly harmful
Banning heading the ball in football will be very difficult. Would it be similar to the handball rule? How would you differentiate between deliberate and accidental heading? The reason for soccer’s lasting popularity is its simplicity. Don’t add more rules.
Oh, come on George, really? Try telling that to the family of one of football’s dementia victims in 40 years’ time. That we couldn’t act despite what we knew because everyone copped the hump when we changed the handball rule.
Driving cars, swimming in the sea and mountaineering kill so why aren’t they banned? Accidents in the home kill so why aren’t homes banned? Fire kills so what about combustible materials? Alcohol and cigarettes kill, too. Why isn’t it all banned?
Alf Tupper, United Kingdom
Well, because most of those things — driving, swimming, mountaineering, home-owning, even controlled fires — are harmless if done right. That is not true of heading. It isn’t an aberration that causes dementia, it is quite possibly the successful completion of the act.
Drive a car successfully and you will pull up at your destination. Swim in the sea successfully and you will return to land unharmed. Repeatedly head a ball successfully and you are over three times more likely to suffer brain damage. That is the difference.
My brother and I used to walk past an asbestos factory which pumped out a cloud of the stuff on to the street every day. Sixty years later I have the lungs, recently verified, of a 36-year-old. Discuss.
Well, good luck, here’s hoping it continues. My mum died aged 75. She used to wash her father’s work clothes and he had a clearance business, so she probably inhaled asbestos fibres from the old buildings. They lay dormant for decades, invisible, but are then triggered.
So her misfortune was as real as your good fortune. One does not erase the other. Just because you are well does not make the dangers of asbestos a myth. And the players who have not suffered dementia do not alter the reality of those going through it.
The boxer Johnny Owen died because he had an unusually delicate skull, and an unusually strong jaw. Luck can often play a part in medical outcomes. But the fact remains had he not been a boxer it probably wouldn’t have been significant.
Is it too much to ask for us to investigate the dangers of heading or even hold a discussion?
Dementia is so commonplace these days we shouldn’t conflate it with the 1966 England squad. Why not compare all professional footballers? Oh, the narrative wouldn’t fit. I don’t remember Dixie Dean, Tommy Lawton, Tom Finney, Nat Lofthouse or Stan Matthews dying from dementia.
Tommy Lawton died with dementia. Nat Lofthouse died with dementia. Dixie Dean suffered from headaches throughout his life, to the extent he carried aspirin everywhere. Just because you weren’t paying attention doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
You try telling these lads that they can make millions in their twenties playing football but they might have a higher chance of dementia in old age and see if they care.
Yes, but what if they could still get paid without a higher risk of dementia? What if we opened our minds to even have that discussion, to investigate through research, to explore this conversation to its logical end? Is that really too much to ask? What if when Thiago Silva talked, someone in football actually listened? And why is this still a radical idea?
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