Now that the 2014 World Cup has come to a close and Germany’s Mario Götze is celebrating the victory of a lifetime while Argentinians are still rioting in dismay, the world can exhale in unison and turn focus to the things that FIFA needs to do before 2018. First on the list: an adequate, medically-informed and upheld assessment of its procedures concerning head injuries, and not just those of Christoph Kramer and Álvaro Pereira. This is called accountability. It is a basic human concern, and FIFA, once again in the spotlight, is silent on the issue that stares them—glassy-eyed—in the face.
Players who have sustained visible head injuries have continued to play immediately following collisions. In particular, three cases have been highlighted from the 2014 World Cup, however there are clearly more.
Bruno Martins Indi, June 18. During the Netherlands-Australia match in group play, Martins Indi collided with Australian striker Tim Cahill and sustained a concussion for which the Dutch defender had to be carried off the field in a stretcher and neck brace. It was later reported that Indi would likely miss his team’s next match against Chile.
Álvaro Pereira, June 19. Uruguay’s Pereira took a knee to the head against England in what will probably be the most talked about case in the discussion of poor FIFA protocol this year. Following the collision, Pereira was not even conscious enough to fake the injury he had actually sustained and remained next to motionless on the field. Once Pereira was carried off and Uruguay’s doctor motioned for a substitute, Pereira then reacted in a highly unprofessional manner by visibly arguing with and batting away medics and staff. Though the player could barely stand upright without staggering, he was allowed to return to the game after getting knocked out just minutes prior. Reports after the fact maintain that Pereira was unconscious when medics got to him on the field.
Javier Mascherano, July 9. After Mascherano collided with Georginio Wijnaldum in Argentina’s match against the Netherlands, FIFA gave a wobbly Mascherano an “evaluation.” After a few short minutes the player was allowed to return to the game. For anyone who has played competitive sports, even at the college level, players are not allowed to continue until they are cleared following an examination. In collegiate soccer, a baseline test is performed during preseason and serves as the comparison for subsequent tests taken following a suspect collision. The test takes at least 10 minutes; Mascherano returned in less than half that time.
Pablo Zabeleta, July 9. During the same semifinal match between the Netherlands and Argentina that saw Mascherano play through a possible concussion, Zabeleta also had a suspect collision. In this case, opposing player Dirk Kuyt assumed concern on the player’s behalf and waved on the medical staff to assess the situation. It is hard to argue the direness of circumstances when an opposing player is concerned enough to get a downed player some help. Both Zabeleta and Mascherano played in Argentina’s final match.
Christoph Kramer, July 13. In the World Cup final between Argentina and Germany, Kramer suffered a collision in the Argentine box that left the German player disoriented on the ground. Kramer collided with the unforeseen shoulder of Argentine defender, Ezequiel Garay. Though visibly out of it, Kramer continued to play, only to be taken out less than 15 minutes later after he sank to the ground. As Kramer was walked off the field by medical staff, the player’s disorientation was easily visible.
To squabble over whether or not these were in fact concussions is to miss the point. As of now, there is no way of knowing until after the games themselves, when players receive the medical attention that was due hours before.
The player’s union, FIFPro, has come forward to question FIFA’s concern for player safety. They demand that FIFA enact a strict protocol ensuring players receive adequate medical attention for head injuries. FIFPro has even urged that its own medical team be present in the future to ensure that protocols are upheld.
Far off in the distance, well beyond earshot of the conversation, FIFA’s reply to the issue: leave it up to the teams to decide. What is the role of FIFA’s employed medical staff if such decisions are left up to the teams themselves? Some professional footballers have come to regret being allowed back on the field.
Look no further than to World Cup commentator and former Major League Soccer (MLS) player, Taylor Twellman. Twellman’s career was cut short after sustaining a string of head injuries that posed a significant threat to the player’s future and wellbeing. A combination of chronic headaches, fatigue, and sensitivity to light and sound contributed to Twellman’s decision to end his career prematurely. Twellman will be a figure to keep within earshot as the concussion matter with FIFA continues to unfold, as he has already cited the organization’s “barbaric” and “pathetic” handling of the situation.
Five years ago, MLS defender Bryan Namoff experienced a head collision much like many of those observed in this year’s World Cup. Namoff shrugged off the injury and continued to play out the match for D.C. United, and played in the team’s subsequent match as well. Following that game, however, Namoff began to experience excruciating headaches.
After retiring in 2010, Namoff is looking to sue his former team for “failing to properly evaluate him” and “letting him [continue] on the field.”
Bottom line: players should not have the authority to decide for themselves whether or not it is alright for them to play after sustaining a blow to the head.
FIFA has not officially entertained any of the suggestions offered by FIFPro. However, Michel D’Hooghe, chairman of FIFA’s medical committee, said that he was not happy with the incident that occurred during Uruguay’s match against England, where Pereira was allowed to overrule medical personnel minutes after being knocked unconscious.
FIFA’s handling of the concussion situation is entangled with the organization’s rule of substitutions. As teams are only allowed a certain number of substitutes, the human right to medical treatment often gets overlooked in the interest of preserving substitutions. The humane response to this is that substitutions resulting from concussed players should not be logged as one of the three allotted.
Players might try to fake concussions in order to allow themselves rest and even a sub if they have already gone through their allotment. It might be time for the world to re-evaluate its principles concerning human safety versus sporting entertainment; it is not an either/or.
If people are concerned that players will start faking concussions, then the real discussion ought to shift to why football has become such a corruptible sport—and why players, teams, coaches, fans and federations have let it get to that point. It is no revelation that players take dives. The double standard is that when Jane Argentina-fan decries a flop by Arjen Robben, she will defend a dive from Lionel Messi. In this respect, the finger-pointing at FIFA ought to be directed at fans as well.
Whether FIFA revisits its substitution policy, and whether players make calculated dives, FIFA must address the head injuries of players like Kramer, Pereira, Mascherano, Martins Indi and Zabaleta. The world awaits FIFA’s next move, hopefully before 2018.
Commentary by Courtney Anderson