Frankfurt/Main (dpa) – The header in football is controversial. A link between repetitive head injuries and neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease has long been suspected.
In the UK in particular, there is debate about the potential long-term consequences of head use. In 2019, a Scottish study found that footballers are more likely to die from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. So few scientists around the world have spoken out in favor of banning head balls in children.
Tim Maier, Germany’s national team doctor and head of the German Football Association’s (DFB) medical committee, warned of the ill-considered ban on a media tour on Wednesday: “Such a header usually does not lead to any appreciable medical symptoms.” Mayer said concussions can sometimes occur with heads. “Most of the time, it’s not the ball that causes that concussion, it’s contact with the opponent’s head, shoulder, pole or the ground.” And instead of banning, neurologist Klaus Rensberger, who is also a member of the medical committee, demanded, “headball should be taught gently.”
DFB: Gentle vertical training for children
The German Football Association therefore wants to educate children about the subject in a more sensitive way. For training in younger classes, he recommends light balls — some made of foam — and a small number of head repetitions per training session. In senior youth classes, “all forms of head play” should be trained only in youth A and B.
Small pitches for juniors and mini-goals should help ensure that the balls play flat. “We have decided that the stadiums will grow with the children,” said German DFB Vice President Ronnie Zimmermann. “If you watch a five- or six-year-old play football today, there’s relatively little head-balling anyway.”
There is no answer as to how head balls can lead to serious brain disease. In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there has been a ban on the use of head balls in training children under the age of 12 since the beginning of 2020. Head balls are also banned for children under the age of 10 in the United States.
Science studies the effect
The 2019 Scottish study examined nearly 8,000 former players and found that footballers were 3.45 times more likely to die from dementia than the rest of the population. Several national players from the England World Cup squad have died since 1966 after suffering from dementia. Bobby Charlton, soccer legend from the world champion team, suffers from dementia. Reinsberger criticized the study for not taking into account social and cultural factors such as alcohol consumption or lifestyle.
Scientists still wonder how often light strikes to the head and slight concussions promote chronic diseases such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease and severe brain injury. CTE, which has become known from boxing and American football, is also linked to soccer.
In CTE, which cannot be diagnosed until after death, shrunken brains show obvious protein deposits and inflammatory changes. “How the disease is recognized during its lifetime has not been fully elucidated,” Rensberger said. “It is clear that only untreated or inadequately treated brain trauma is the risk of developing CTE.”
German Football Association team doctor Mayer does not want to advise against headers in adult football. “I don’t see anything we have like a ban on capes anytime soon either.” Neurologist Rinsberger sees solutions in longer breaks for players with head injuries to examine, as well as easy head ball training on the brain. “Before you consider such drastic solutions, you can do a lot more in the current form of the game to positively impact the brain health of athletes,” Rensberger said.
In professional sports, there is often no time for tests on the field. Doctors often describe the pressure in the playground as elevated. Since the 2015/16 season, doctors in Germany have been allowed a three-minute break to check for head injuries. In some countries, teams now have an additional replacement option in such a case. Temporary changes can also be visualized so that players can be screened in the dressing room. “It is not necessary for the team physician in the field to be able to diagnose a concussion with certainty, he should be able to rule it out,” Rensberger said.
© dpa-infocom, dpa: 220126-99-863298 / 5