“The fact that children under the age of 12 can still go here today is really bad. In a number of countries around the world, the problem has been solved and it’s really time to start talking about here,” explained Evžen Růžička, head of the Neurological Clinic of the 1st Faculty of Medicine and the General University Hospital, for Seznam Zprávy.
Reports and studies about the evils of headers have surfaced repeatedly in recent years, and some states have decided to take action. Recently, debates have been stirred up, for example, in Great Britain.
The English Football Association (FA) wants to ban intentional heading in matches by under-12 footballers next season. If this “experiment” is successful, it could completely disappear from training and children’s matches within two years.
In the Czech Republic, for example, considerations of similar bans are off the table. Officials say they lack a larger study based on current real data that would directly show the negative impact of headbutting on children.
“No study describes the current real situation, only a certain level of probability, which is based on past examples, when the method of studying football was completely different, based on more frequent headers and with heavy balls,” explains Antonín Plachý, head of the Coaching Section of the Football Association of the Czech Republic (FAČR). .
As the British newspaper The Guardian recalls, in Britain the ban followed the rules from 2020, which advised British coaches not to practice heading with children under 11 years old and also regulated it in older ones youth player
“We want all children to enjoy playing football, but they must be able to do so safely. The proposal to expand the proper directives is a logical and reasonable step. “Football needs to ensure that the risks associated with heading of the ball will continue to decrease,” commented Dawn Astle, head of the Football Neurodegenerative Diseases Project at the Professional Footballers’ Association.
A few years ago, Canada, Scotland and the United States also began to regulate football tackles, with children under the age of 10 not allowed to go either in training sessions or in matches. Certain restrictions apply up to age 13.
Diseases and deaths of stars
The connection between repeated blows to the head and the development of dementia or other brain diseases has been proven in the past, for example, among boxers or American football players. In recent years, however, studies have focused on football players. And it does not bring good news.
“The number of studies began to increase after 2000, including how information about former top football players, including the legendary British player Bobby Charlton, who suffered from dementia was heard,” notes neurologist Růžička.
For example, the work of neuropathologist Willie Stewart from the University of Glasgow caused a stir. In 2019, he published a study proving that former football players are three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative diseases than other populations of comparable age.
The first major wave of interest in the impact of heading on the health of former footballers was brought about by the death of English striker Jeff Astle. The West Bromwich Albion legend died aged 59 from a brain disease and the coroner said the disease was caused by repeated blows to the head with a heavy leather ball.
Famous English World Cup winners Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters succumbed to dementia in the past. Even Sir Bobby Charlton himself, considered one of the best footballers in history, did not survive the discovery of this neurodegenerative brain disorder. His wife, Norma, wants to inform the public about her husband’s condition so that the issue can be better known.
For example, The Guardian published a list of about 20 famous football players dealing with illnesses.
In 2017, the leading goalscorer in Premier League history, Alan Shearer, filmed the award-winning one-hour documentary Dementia, Football and Me in 2017 about headers in football. In Great Britain, the Head for Change project was also created, which draws attention to the topic.
Prescribing drugs for dementia is also more common among them overall. To the players, Stewart was literally talking about chronic traumatic encephalopathy – that is, permanent brain damage due to repeated blows.
Czech doctors warn
Doctors in the Czech Republic drew attention to the problem even before the publication of this study, and in their statement they mentioned a series of other works that describe the effect of the so-called microtraumatization, that is , minor brain tissue damage.
“The problem is especially severe among children. In other words, the risk of head-butting is greater with a developing brain. The data shows that, especially among children under 12 years of age, there is a demonstrable deterioration in memory and mental performance compared to those who did not do homework. No one has proven it’s completely safe from age 13 and up, but it’s probably less dangerous. However, of course this does not mean that it is a safe thing for older years,” added neurologist Růžička.
According to him, the public has a lukewarm attitude to the problem also because the problems with the players will not show themselves in one year, but maybe in 40 years.
What happens in the brain when going?
The problem is mainly the sudden acceleration and sudden deceleration that occurs during an impact. Although the brain is in liquid, this sudden speed is enough to break the nerve connections – the projections of the nerve cells.
“It’s a mild brain injury that may not be visible with standard imaging methods. But when we do tractography (a method that allows visualization of stronger bundles of nerve pathways in the white matter of the brain and measurement of the function of brain pathways, note ed.), is noticeable,” the doctor described.
According to studies, the main problem is the repeated frequent side effects. The changes are subsequently reflected in impaired brain development, but also in the deterioration of cognitive abilities. In old age, they can result in pathological changes and gradual development of neurodegenerative diseases.
“During one’s career one does not deal with it, no articles are published anywhere, no one thinks that there might be something wrong with it. I think the generations before us were worse with heavy balls. I haven’t noticed any ailments myself, but the older a person gets, the more they worry that something might happen to them. Players are a product of football and I think it’s good if these investigations are handled from the top, that is, from the management of football associations, unions and so on. You put a bug in my head and maybe I will go for a check-up as a precaution,” the former Czech national team member Vratislav Lokvenc was previously profiled for Seznam Zprávy.
Association: no ban needed
UEFA itself issued a series of guidelines for heading young players two years ago. For example, he recommends reducing exercises to the bare minimum and using lighter and less inflated balls. “For the first training sessions, foam balls can be an alternative,” he added.
Debates about the problem also continue in the country, and at least some changes have occurred in recent years. “The balls are lighter than before, and the coaches are also allowed to underinflate the balls, compared to the old habit of overinflating the balls,” explained Antonín Plachý from FAČR.
According to him, in addition, there is almost no head-hunting among children according to the current education system. “From the preparation statistics, we used half a header per match, and for the younger students it goes up to one header. We don’t even want to go so far as to ban something and then suddenly allow it. If a child is able to play safe in his head at 14, then he needs to be taught safe first,” he added.
At the same time, the FAČR has already submitted its conclusions to the National Council for Sport. This was confirmed for Seznam Zprávy by the spokesperson of the National Sports Agency, Jakub Večerka.
“We fully agree with the studies and the warning that heading is dangerous for the youngest footballers. Since, according to the FAČR data, it almost never happens, it does not make sense for us to introduce a ban in the Czech Republic at the moment. If any professional entity wants to devote more attention to this issue from a research point of view, we will certainly be happy to provide support,” concluded Večerka.