Essays & articles on compelling topics

A (Soccer) World Without Headers

fussball / soccer

You are an educated citizen of the world, so you are well aware of the debate about tackle football and the brain trauma (CTE, etc.) it visits upon many athletes. It concerns you and possibly causes you to rethink your relationship with today’s American pastime (sorry baseball).

But did you also know that soccer is slowly coming to grips with its own brain trauma issues? Former US soccer player Taylor Twellman’s career was cut short by multiple concussions. And while he is still involved in the game, he’s a fierce opponent of headers in youth soccer. The dam is breaking.

Quintessential English striker Alan Shearer is making a documentary about soccer-related dementia. We may soon have to confront whether headers belong in soccer matches of any level.

I’ll divide the header problem into two major groups. There are run-of-play headers and goal-scoring headers. While acknowledging that any major change the sport will make thing awkward for awhile, the former can disappear relatively more painlessly than the others.

The muscle memory will remain – you will want to head the ball when you see it soaring in the air near you, but, in most cases, you probably have multiple seconds to process and time that jump. It’s rarely an instantaneous thing that you can’t avoid (something American football defensive backs say they have an issue with when considering tackles that used to be legal).

The headers in front of goal are more difficult. When you’re on offense in front of that goal, you can often times do anything possible (ehem ehem Thierry Henry) to get that ball in the net. You sometimes become blinded by that single-minded pursuit; so I suspect there will be many whistles for goal-attempt headers for years after the ban is enacted.

  1. We must establish penalties. I assume it would settle around each player getting the following per infraction:  one header (warning), two header (yellow card), three header (red card and expulsion). Each infraction gives the ball to the opposition with an indirect kick. If a defender heads in the box, it’s a penalty kick. Like handballs, the referee can rule intent (aka a mistaken header is not called).
  2. Tactics change. There is something in soccer called Route One (A Britishism) or long-ball football. It is long thought the domain of less skilled teams. Whereas Barcelona is a blur of short passes and movement, Route One is for the third division teams that punt the ball upfield and hope the striker settles it and shoots or heads it into the path of a trailing midfielder. With headers banned, this type of football takes route one to the bins of history. Long balls still exist, but they’re rare and the ball is won through trapping with the foot or different parts of the body.
  3. Certain players are likely phased out of the game. With the strong belief that anyone playing professional soccer is a goddamn legend, there are certain players whose major worth is being tall and heading the ball into the net. It may surprise you to hear that the man who scored this goal might not have a place in the new soccer.

    But the reality is that over 40% of his goals have come via header. He’s not exactly quick on his feet, which will become an even more important trait that all footballers must now possess. Without the threat of the header, his role diminishes even more.

  4. Messi is considered the world’s best soccer player and it isn’t close. Ronaldo is an amazing all-around player and is Messi’s equal or better in many categories. Many of his goals depend on headers – at last count, 15%, and those goals are not easily replicated elsewhere. Ronaldo’s 571 goals shrink to 481. Of Messi’s 481 goals, only 19 are headers. The restatement puts Ronaldo at .63 goals per match and Messi at .83 goals per match. And it’s not just the stats, for many the picture of the quintessential Ronaldo play is him from the center of the pitch, laying it off to the wing and then sprinting to the net, powerfully heading the ball past the keeper. That image is erased along with those 90 goals.
  5. There’s probably (slightly) less scoring. Thought Route One football is boring and seen as the domain of substandard teams, it can occasionally be effective and it tends to open up the pitch. If you know the opposition can’t head the ball, you might play a bit more bunched up and the ball is played more from the back.
  6. But! Maybe I’m wrong. There could be more scoring. There are plenty of times where an offense threatening to score is thwarted by a defender that just heads the ball out of bounds. If that same defender now has to try to kick the ball or trap it with a body part, they could mess up, leading the offense to have a wide-open shot.
In summation, I am not going to deny that headers are an exciting and integral part of soccer today. I’m not sure I want to live in a world where this disappears. But it’s inevitable that the clamor to make sports safer will continue. And if we begin banning this tactic in children, why not just rip the bandaid off and eliminate it everywhere. The sport will survive, even if poor Peter Crouch has to find another career.

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