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FIFA Needs to Start Taking Concussions Seriously

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After high-profile incidents with Jan Vertonghen and Loris Karius in the last two years, only a rule change can protect the players and protect the game.

Tottenham Hotspur v Ajax - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: First Leg Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, Fabinho came on to help see out a nervy 1-0 victory over Cardiff City in the Premier League. Three minutes and a head-to-head collision later, the sub was being subbed off, after Liverpool’s medical staff refused to let the player back onto the pitch. Fabinho objected, of course, but the physios were steadfast: he wasn’t coming back into the match.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the medical staff was under strict instructions from Jurgen Klopp, especially after what happened to Loris Karius in last year’s Champions League final. Although the tie (and therefore possibly the league) was in the balance at Cardiff, the last thing that Klopp wanted was a repeat of Kiev—both for the team, and the player.

Not only was the incident in Kiev damaging to the player on a physical level (a concussion can be a serious injury, especially if the player tries to play through it, as Karius did), but we all know the damage it did to his career. And the mistakes that happened post-concussion also cost the team that day, on the biggest stage in club football, no less.

On Tuesday night, we saw a much worse (not to mention less intentional) head injury, when Jan Vertonghen came together with several other players while contesting a header. It was immediately clear that he “wasn’t right,” and yet he was allowed back onto the pitch (after changing out of his blood-soaked shirt, of course). The player himself decided to come off, if by “decided” you mean “needing support to stand while vomiting on the side of the pitch.”

It was honestly horrific.

It shouldn’t have happened that way, and the rules of the game need to be changed accordingly.

Although refs are instructed to stop play for a possible head injury, we have seen this ignored, including in the Karius example. This cannot be optional.

Moreover, deciding whether to continue or not should not be left up to the player, or the manager, or even the team’s medical staff (who are all, no doubt, more than a little biased). Instead, FIFA needs to start employing their own medical staff who can step in and assess the player objectively, regardless of the in-game situation. The decision needs to be taken out of the hands of players, coaches, and team medics.

Finally, if a player is deemed concussed by this neutral medical professional, the team should be allowed an extra substitution. Although Klopp was able to make the quick decision to pull Fabinho two weeks ago, would he have made the same choice in last year’s final? Especially after already losing a player to an injury? Alternatively, what if Fabinho had been the third and final sub? These in-game scenarios should not dictate whether or not a player gets the medical attention they need.

Sports, generally, are far behind the curve when it comes to concussions, and football is arguably even worse than most sports. How many more high-profile incidents do there need to be before FIFA takes action? This is obviously a rhetorical question, since there’s no money to be made by FIFA for keeping their players safe. Maybe a conscientious billionaire can bribe them to help prioritize this important issue.

We know how dangerous concussions are, and especially when a player has multiple ones through their career. It would be nice for the rules of the game to reflect our medical knowledge in this area, to keep the game safe for generations to come.