Gordon Banks – the goalkeeper who helped England famously win victorious over Germany in the 1966 World Cup final – has said he believes heading heavier footballs may have led to several members of the team developing Alzheimer's disease in later life.
In an interview on Friday, 8 March, Banks told The Sun that he believed heavier leather balls – which are considerably more robust and weightier than today's lightweight versions – could have caused members of the cup-winning squad to contract the degenerative memory illness. Ray Wilson was told he had the disease – a progressive mental condition that can occur due to generalized degeneration of the brain – in 2004, while squad midfielders Nobby Stiles and Martin Peters reportedly received the diagnosis in later years. Another teammate, England footballing legend and former defender Jack Charlton, has also claimed that he suffers from memory loss.
"It's horrible – Alzheimer's," Banks told the newspaper. "It makes you wonder if it is anything to do with the footballs… We played with balls a lot heavier than they are now, with all that leather in[side]. These guys had to practise heading those balls, day in, day out, for years" he pointed out. The team lifted the Jules Rimet trophy at Wembley Stadium after defeating West Germany in a tense 4-2 victory that extended into the final minutes of extra time.
"We remain great friends and have kept in touch, but it is getting harder to meet up with some of the guys because they are not well," he added. "We have all been looking forward to the 50th anniversary and we want to celebrate it together. I know some of the guys have been struggling but I hope they or their wives can come."
History of balls
The design of the football has developed dramatically over the last 153 years, following the first specifications for the modern football laid down by the Football Association in 1863. The first types of ball, were constructed from either an outer shell of leather filled with cork shavings, or a leather shell filled with animal bladders inside, to make the ball more inflatable and therefore create extra bounce.
In the 1900s, the design of footballs had developed dramatically, and were made out of rubber and leather to provide extra bounce to the ball; however, it caused great pain when it was hit with a players' head. The problem was initially blamed on water absorption into the leather from rain, and caused severe head and neck injuries, according to a paper published by the Journal of Materials Science in April 2008.
Sports manufacturer Adidas have been tasked with creating Fifa World Cup footballs since the 1962 Chilean World Cup, where the ball was nicknamed 'The Crack' and reportedly designed and manufactured by local companies. Only since 1970 has an official regulation ball been in use during official Fifa tournaments – a contract that the sports company has held up to the present day.
In November 2015, The Guardian reported that mounting evidence, of which indicated that modern lightweight balls can wreak lasting brain damage, continued to grow through specified research. The paper also reported that the US Soccer Federation announced it would be limiting the number of headers that children aged between 11-13 years old could take in training. The federation also banned children any younger than aged 11 from heading a football altogether.
Headway, the brain injury association, said, at the time, that there was "currently insufficient evidence on the risk of brain injury to justify a similar ban in the UK at this stage".