Under new measures imposed by US Soccer after a court case, American children under the age of 11 are to be prevented from heading footballs and restrictions are to be imposed on those between 11 and 13.
It follows the publication of statistics showing that children who play football suffer an inordinately high incidence of concussion: quite an unpleasant surprise, given that we are accustomed to assuming that modern balls are light and consistent as compared with the porous leather spheres of old, which meant that heading became increasingly hazardous on wet days.
The old balls were in use when Jeff Astle started out in the game and heading has become a controversial issue over here as well, because the former West Bromwich Albion and England centre-forward died in 2002, at the age of only 59, from a disease associated with former boxers who had taken too many punches around the brain.
A campaign launched by Astle’s family led to the Football Association belatedly – in 2014 – promising to support long-term research into the effects of heading and I presume the results will be published at some stage.
But the FA say they have no plans to follow US Soccer’s policy and stress that a lead would have to come from FIFA, which, in current circumstances, means that nothing will be even considered for the foreseeable future. It seems an oddly casual approach, given the fuss made and elaborate precautions taken whenever the mildest of head injuries is suspected on the professional field.
What if the game itself, or at least the proportion of it which involves physical use of the head, is inherently dangerous, as the figures presented to the American court would suggest? Is it moral in these circumstances merely to have procedures designed to limit damage on an incident-by-incident basis? Or could bodies like FIFA and the FA eventually face at least the possibility of legal action for alleged negligence in allowing practices they clearly and obviously believe to be less than risk-free?
I am not sure. But I find it extraordinary that it is not at or near the top of the game’s agenda. Safety is paramount; everyone says it, from airlines to those charged with keeping children out of harm’s way, but it doesn’t seem to be the case with young footballers this side of the Atlantic. On the other hand, there’s the eminently sensible argument that children and adults require a degree of risk to enjoy life, be creative and get the best out of themselves in any field of endeavour. But we should talk about it.
Maybe there is a little prejudice in my view, for I have long yearned to see an experimental ban on heading in football, not just for safety reasons but to make the game better. Having been brought up on the early artistry of Alan Gilzean at Dundee – he could often pass more elegantly and perceptively with his head than inferior players could with their feet (although Gilly’s feet were deft too) – I know what the head can bring to football. But is it worth all the skirmishing and clashing craniums?
Football should be for footballers and, while the gladiatorial aspects have their place in the game, they have become excessive – not least in the Premier League – and aerial conflict often causes more problems for match officials than it is worth. Take corners, for example, and the grappling contests that so often ensue. Even worse is the ugly habit of rising to challenge with your eyes closed, especially when you lean your head back into the face of someone legitimately attacking the ball.
So how would non-heading football work? I don’t think you could adapt the old indoor rule about head height, given the difference between the head heights of, say, Peter Crouch and Lionel Messi. You would just have to keep your head out of the ball’s way and – there’s no harm in this – concentrate on the traditional Brazilian skill of chest-passing as well as footwork.
If football turned out to be a bit more Copacabana than we are accustomed to seeing on our public parks, I wouldn’t mind. I might be in a minority. I might even change my mind. But an experiment is the least the FA ought to licence if there is even a hint that statistics gathered in America might be reflected here.
And here’s a final thought: if, as the US regulations imply, you become safer in the air on your 13th birthday, did Jeff Astle spend his entire career determinedly moving closer to the grave?