Will Heading Ever Be Outlawed From Football?

With concussion substitutes on the way in the Premier League, we ponder whether this is the beginning of the end for heading in elite level football.

Will Heading Ever Be Outlawed From Football?

With the Premier League transfer window having opened on January 4, one of the biggest rumours doing the rounds is the prospect of Diego Costa moving to Wolves on a free transfer.

According to the latest transfer betting odds (6/5), Wolves – who have been linked with the 32-year-old in the past – have the best chance of signing the former Chelsea star, who was released by Atletico Madrid last week.

But amidst the January transfer bonanza that comes along with every New Year, it’s easy to forget why Wolves are in the market for a striker in the first place – the sickening head injury to main goal-getter Raul Jimenez.

The Mexico international fractured his skull in a clash of heads with Arsenal’s David Luiz in November and required immediate surgery. As is the case with the majority of head clashes in football, the incident occurred when both men challenged for the ball with their head.

Though Jimenez has vowed to be “back soon”, question marks remain over the future of heading in the game as recent research has added to the very credible theory that heading a ball can lead to dementia.

There’s also the issue of concussion protocols not being clear enough in the Premier League, though progress is at least in the offing with the division set to introduce a concussion substitutes trial at some stage this season after top-flight clubs agreed to the initiative last month.

That discussion came about on the back of the Jimenez injury, but safeguarding the long-term well-being of professional footballers is a wider issue, with a recent report by Sky Sports outlining the grim effects of dementia on England’s 1966 World Cup winning players, four of which have died on the back of the condition.

Furthermore, a landmark study by the University of Glasgow suggests professional footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases than the average person, with persistent heading of a ball being the primary reason.

Mason Speaks Out

With Jimenez in mind, it’s difficult not to think of former Hull defender Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire from the game after requiring 14 metal plates to repair a fractured skull suffered in an aerial challenge with Gary Cahill, then of Chelsea, in 2017.

Still only 29 but with his playing days behind him, Mason spoke to BBC just before Christmas and believes heading could be banned from the game at all levels within 15 years.

"It wouldn't surprise me in 10 to 15 years if heading wasn't involved in the game," he said. "The research and the momentum it's getting, I think it's probably going to open up a lot more stuff that becomes quite shocking.

"I'm not sure footballers are fully aware of the potential damage. This is where the more research, the more understanding, the more education current players get, the better."

From one end of the scale – whereby a player had his career cut short by injury – to the other, where you'll find former Aston Villa, Leicester and Leeds forward Julian Joachim who has still not officially retired from the game at the age of 46.

“I was still playing up until this season but with Covid kicking in I didn’t really get a pre-season under my belt so I haven’t actually played this season yet,” Joachim – who puts his evergreen physicality down to a largely injury-free career – told bookmakers.co.uk.

“I’ve got the opportunity to play games this season but I might give it a breather or finish altogether – I’ve not made up my mind yet.

“I try and look after myself on the fitness front and I’ve not really had any injuries of late so that’s good, but above all I still enjoy the game, I still love playing.”

Prolonged Careers

Indeed, that love of the game mixed with vastly improved knowledge of sports science is leading to longer careers – you only have to look at the condition and supreme level Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi still operate at in their mid-30s as the prime examples.

But surely the longer the career the greater the risk of dementia in later life?

“I’m not worried about myself,” said Joachim. “Heading the ball is just a part of the game, but it is proven that ex-players are struggling in that department now, so it’s something to be looked at.

“I’m sure something will be done in the future if that continues but as it is at the minute, it’s just part of the game, so I suppose players will just go with it until we see a situation where too many ex-players are getting it.”

And so the question remains, will we see a situation where heading is completely outlawed from the game any time soon?

“I doubt it, to be honest,” said Joachim. “But you never know because things are happening and there are a lot of changes in the game. But who knows, it’s one to watch for the future, but at this moment in time I can’t see it.”

The upcoming introduction of concussion substitutes will be a step in the right direction for the Premier League, and limitations on how much heading can be done in youth football in the UK is a progressive step, but it would appear the sport overall has quite some distance to go if it is to safeguard its players from neurodegenerative diseases.