An Unfortunate Bi-Product Of The Beautiful Game?

Our beloved sport has endured a few body blows in recent months; we’ve had scandals, teams slip into administration and several tragedies both on and off the pitch. As a dedicated audience we relish the prospect of football evolving as both a physical activity and an entertainment spectacle, but has anyone stopped to truly consider the detrimental impact this could have on the players?

The intensity of English football currently resides at an unprecedented level with the physical hardship of each season matched only by the increasing amount of expectation placed upon such fragile shoulders. The football schedule is so congested that players are finding themselves constantly nursing niggling injuries even when they’re not confined to the sidelines.

The magnitude of this escalating strain is highlighted by the worrying increase in cardiac related fatalities. There were seven recorded deaths in total between 1970 and 1989, compared to 10 in the 1990s and an unparalleled 28 in the 2000s. Since the turn of the decade we’ve already lost 11 more individuals, with the recent passing of Piermario Morosini bringing Italian football and subsequently the world to a standstill.

There is still an air of confusion surrounding the death of Morosini, initial analysis suggests that the 25-year-old may have collapsed suddenly due to erratic electrical impulses in his heart. However, there is an underlining universal concern that perhaps not every possible aid is made available to athletes, competing not only in football but also in events throughout the world. In the wake of the tragedy, the Lega Pro chiefs have pledged to ensure that a defibrillator is on standby at the top 134 venues in Italy. This is a promising development but there are still numerous precautions yet to be implemented behind the scenes.

Mario Balotelli, a player who played with Morosini during their time with Italy’s Under-21 side, revealed to La Gazzetta dello Sport that in his experience there are things English authorities can learn from their Italian counterparts.

“New findings need to be acted on,” said Balotelli. “In England there are not the heart checks we have in Italy. It is better to take precautions.” (Goal.com)

If this is truly the case then new measures need to be introduced to ensure we’re doing everything in our power to identify any underlying issues at the earliest opportunity. Italy coincidently has a reputable history of discovering potential heart problems from an early age, as highlighted by none other than Portsmouth’s Nwankwo Kanu.

In 1996 when the Nigerian was at Inter Milan, tests found that he had a congenital heart defect and in November of that year he underwent surgery to replace an aortic valve. To this day the striker is still playing football and since 2000 has publicly continued to address the issue of heart problems in African children and adults, by setting up the Kanu Nwankwo Heart Foundation.

The main obstacle to overcome is finding a way to identify such conditions that display no physical symptoms. Perhaps until we make significant technological advancements in healthcare we simply have to accept this as poignant reoccurring theme within the game. However, we cannot sit idly by when there are still procedures we can promote to help increase the chances of discovering any possible problems.

Professor Sharma, Consultant Cardiologist at BMI The Blackheath Hospital and Cardiac Risk in the Young charity, as well as cardiologist for the London 2012 Olympics, supports the notion that practices like ECG’s should be encouraged amongst athletes across the professional spectrum.

“I’m not saying we should mandate ECGs or make them compulsory, but I think we should make the practice available to anyone who competes at a high level to have these tests done and, unfortunately, that’s not the case in most athletes in the UK,”

“I can tell you that from my own experience as the cardiologist for the largest cardiology charity organisation, Cardiac Risk in the Young, we pick up a serious fault in one in every 300 athletes we test with the ECGs.” (Goal.com)

The evidence is therefore clear and cannot be ignored as we prepare for a particularly intense summer of sport. I’ve developed a worrying fear that the emerging trend of player simulation and gamesmanship will create a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario whereby players, officials and crucially the emergency services will be unaware when a player is truly hurt or in danger. This could prove pivotal in those situations where every second counts.

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