Fifa reiterate that they know of no "true evidence" regarding the negative effects of heading footballs after new British research published in scientific journal Acta Neuropathologica suggested a potential link between repeated heading and dementia in professional players.
In an study funded by the Drake Foundation and carried out by the Queen Square Brain Bank for Neurological Disorders at University College London (UCL) and Cardiff University, next-of-kin gave permission for the brains of six deceased former footballers who had suffered from dementia – five professionals and one committed amateur who had played the sport for an average of 26 years and were all considered to be skilled headers of the ball – to undergo post-mortem examination. Evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was found in four.
Such a finding was said to be "probably related to their past prolonged exposure to repetitive head impacts from head-to-player collisions and heading the ball thousands of time throughout their careers". According to author Dr Helen Ling, it is the first time that CTE, a potential cause of dementia, has been confirmed in a group of retired footballers.
Responding to IBTimes UK's request for comment to that latest study, a Fifa spokesperson stated that world football's governing body had been actively following the issue of head and brain injuries for more than 15 years and had collaborated on scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals in addition to attending the Fifth International Consensus Conference on Concussion in Sport (ICCCS) back in November 2016.
They also pointed to a new head injury protocol introduced in 2014 and suggested that head injuries could be "reduced significantly" by The International Football Association Board's (IFAB) 2006 rule change that deemed elbows to the head to be worthy of a red card.
"To our very best knowledge, there is currently no true evidence of the negative effect of heading or other sub-concussive blows," the statement continued. "Results from studies on active and former professional football players in relation to brain function are inconclusive. When comparing recreational and professional football players, there is no doubt that the latter group was and is more exposed to all football activities including heading from early childhood than recreational players. Fortunately, football (soccer) does not belong to the high-risk sports for brain and head injuries.
Concussion taken 'very seriously'
"International epidemiological studies presented recently with 395,295 match and training hours in children aged 7 to 12 years, revealed 26 head injuries, eight of which were declared as concussion. Six were caused by body contact and two through contact with the ball. There was one concussion with ball contact every 200,000 playing hours."
Fifa claimed that they will "continue to monitor the situation of head injuries, maintaining constant contact with current and on-going studies regarding long-term neurocognitive changes, both in male and female football players" and insisted that "protecting the health of football players is and will remain a top priority in developing the game."
When asked for their thoughts regarding the study, The Football Association (FA) supplied IBTimes UK with an official response in which head of medicine Dr Charlotte Cowie made it clear that they "take the concerns around concussion and head injuries extremely seriously".
She said: "We welcome this research and the new study is the result of a very dedicated group of researchers working hard to develop further understanding in this area."
Dr Cowie further pointed to the creation of an Expert Concussion Panel back in 2015 that contributed to the publication of the FA's Concussion Guidelines. The panel has since agreed that "research is particularly required into the issue of whether degenerative brain disease is more common in ex-footballers".
She added: "The FA is determined to support this research and is also committed to ensuring that any research process is independent, robust and thorough, so that when the results emerge, everyone in the game can be confident in its findings. To this end, we have recently agreed with the PFA to jointly fund the research project as we believe that a collaborative approach will strengthen the credibility and resource available to the project."
Families deserve answers
Providing his reaction to the study, Peter McCabe, chief executive of brain injury association Headway, said: "Any study that helps us to better understand brain injury has to be looked at seriously. We have known for some time that there is a link between the cumulative effect of repeated blows to the head – such as those suffered by boxers – and degenerative neurological conditions such as dementia.
"The families of former footballers who played in the 1960s or 70s and who have gone on to develop neurological conditions deserve answers as to whether or not heading heavy leather footballs contributed to their conditions. Too little has been done to this point and questions should be asked of the football authorities regarding why they haven't commissioned a large scale study to this point.
"However, it is important to exercise caution when interpreting the results of studies with such small sample sizes, particularly when it comes to any possible implications for modern day football. We urgently need more research – particularly research that has meaningful implications for today's game.
"Until that time, we have to ensure we take a common sense approach to the issue of heading modern, lightweight footballs that doesn't put people off from playing the sport. The focus should remain on ensuring everyone involved in the game is Concussion Aware and takes an 'if in doubt, sit it out!' approach to head injuries and concussion."