Should headers be banned in football?

Re-imagining football without a key ingredient

Prateek Vasisht
Sep 2, 2018 · 7 min read

Concussion is a fact of sport. In contact sports like rugby, this is nothing new. Thankfully, concussion is finally starting to get the attention it deserves. As veterans come forward with stories of the damage those “knocks to the head”, often dismissed as a part of the game, have done to their lives, this topic will continue to demand action from sporting authorities.

In football, brain damage is an issue gaining airtime. The 2018 World Cup once brought it into visible focus. Matuidi’s face, in the semi-final, epitomized a dazed footballer who was in “la-la land”.

The chorus now is getting louder.

So how can authorities react?

Solutions fall into three categories:

  • Approach A: Recognize concussion/brain damage as a “occupational hazard” and players are coached in good technique and safe practices.
  • Approach B: Have better event based responses e.g. stand-down periods, special or temporary substitution rules, increased evaluation etc. This approach can be combined with the one above also.
  • Approach C — and focus of this article: Address the root cause — ban headers. But is this approach overkill or brutally effective? That is the debate.
“Face details on a vintage toy doll head” by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Not such a crazy idea!

One assumes that head clashes would be a big contributor to concussion/long term brain damage. They are most obvious candidate for sure. However, a hidden culprit is emerging —simply heading the ball.

A recent study, consistent with an earlier one by the same author, found that heading the ball increases the risk of longer term brain damage. To quote: “heading presents an independent source of symptomatic events”.

Other studies corroborate this finding. While skeptics will always exist and will argue until the correlation is very high, that still does not change the ground reality. Organizations are starting to take notice. The PFA wants headers banned for children under 11 and UEFA is considering banning headers pending the results of a study.

That glancing strike, the rising header from a set piece or the diving header from a cross. Football without headers is hard to imagine. Ironically, the game is called foot-ball so literally speaking, it should be played using the feet. In theory, headers should be dispensable.

So what happens if we eliminate headers from the game? The changes are dynamic and interesting in equal measure.

No headers? Impact on game play

Headers are an integral part of gameplay. It comes into play in the following scenarios, which can overlap with each other:

  • Balancing an aerial ball
  • Contesting an aerial ball
  • Saving goals
  • Scoring goals

The implications for each scenario are discussed below.

Balance: Not that important in the scheme of things. The chest or indeed the feet can be used to balance or control aerial balls, if heading is not allowed.

Contesting a ball: Contesting an aerial ball is an important part of defensive and offensive scenarios. Heading is a popular end point for set pieces. This is where the risk of head collision (read brain damage) is maximum. This act by also involves heading the ball, often powerfully, in or away from a direction. So double whammy (no pun intended) — heading related impact and risk of head collision. Aerial ball contests are therefore events of critical importance. They have the maximum impact on brain injury risk and gameplay. If heading is banned, then aerial contests and the set pieces headers help realise will beat the brunt.

Saving goals: The image of a defender heading a shot off the goal line is as recent as last month when a Croatian defender accomplished that against England. In response to corners, tall central defenders often head the ball out into safety. If headers are banned, this capability could be diminished.

Scoring goals: In terms of consequence, this will impact game play but not as much as we think. Headers seem common, but only account for 16%-20% of all goals. Also, as per one study, all things being equal, headers have a lower conversion rate than shots. When we compare the only two players to have won the Ballon d’Or in the last decade, the stats speak for themselves.

  • Ronaldo — 16% of career goals using via headers
  • Messi — less than 4% of career goals via headers!!

No headers? Impact on game evolution

If headers are banned, the biggest implication will be for set pieces, in both attack and defense scenarios. A less significant impact will be on goals scored.

But this assumes that the game will remain static and an important aspect of it will be lost permanently if headers are banned. That is not going to be the case. Like all dynamic ecosystems, in football gameplay will evolve in response to external stimuli (in our case a law change to ban headers).

Set pieces

If headers are abolished, direct free-kicks, already the Ferrari/Lamborghini amongst the tricks of the footballing trade, will rise to prominence to fill the void. If we can score direct, why go via contestable header territory?

For corners the scenario is more diverse. Corners happen when the attacking side’s effort has been parried away by good defending or keeping. The attacking side is rewarded by what is theoretically a 50–50 ball. In practice, the attacking side has higher probability in their favor. Corners rely on headers. If headers are removed, corners will need to evolve — radically even perhaps. In a simple scenario, a corner can become a throw-in from where the ball went out. Looking beyond football, we can borrow from other sports. We might see hockey style “penalty-corners”. Indeed, like rugby, in a corner situation, the attacking team can get a free-kick say some distance out but in line from where the ball went out of play. Other options to compensateattacking sides in corner situations can also be invented.

Gameplay

If headers are taken out of the equation, goal scoring ability might drop by say 20% but arguably, this will be overcome by better evolution of shot based scoring. If headers cannot be used, players will (have to) become more skilled at shots, thus filing the void. Tactically, maybe long-ball will suffer but for the purists, that is very mundane application of footballing skill anyway.

Egalitarianism?

If headers are banned, one will question the need to have really tall central defenders and central forwards. If the aerial duel is not relevant, then why invest unnecessarily in height/aerial capability? Those roles would change.

Perhaps smaller players will enter the game as the requirement for height, except for goalkeeper, will be neutralized if headers are banned. The most prodigious talent of recent times is often considered small by traditional standards. Kante, Iniesta, Messi, Xavi all stand under 5’7" but their skill outsmarts even the best. A longer term impact may be that players/teams from countries where people are not so tall, or indeed smaller players generally, will start to be represented better in the world game?

Everything is a negotiation. Everything is a little bit of give and take — Lammam Rucker (American Actor)

Reflections

Concussions and brain damage are a serious issues. When the head is used to propel a ball or contest for a ball, the risk becomes acute.

It’s time the true impact of brain damage is known and accounted for by the game rather than simply being treated as an “externality”.

Football has the largest footprint of any sport (no pun intended). Even if a small percentage of players are impacted, in raw numbers, will be significant. It is a growing sport so a stitch in time, will no doubt save nine (no pun intended).

As the game becomes complex, it is best to let players use their heads to “read” the game rather than use of the most important and delicate human machinery to merely propel a ball forward.

Is banning headers the solution?

It can definitely become one.

Its impact on gameplay will not be as draconian as many would fear or scaremonger. Crucially, banning headers eliminates a cause of longer term brain damage. When we factor that into the equation, there is very little left to argue.

Perhaps a ban would not be implemented outright. Instead, there can be a trial where headers are banned from lower age grades (like current proposals) and filter through to all levels. This will allow authorities to react to this important challenge — flexibly yet conclusively.

The tree of life was always there. Evolution just fills in the gaps. — Simon Conway Morris (British Scientist)

Contrary to the scaremongering that headers will remove an ingrained aspect of the game, football without headers could actually open up many new avenues for the development of football, while addressing an important health concern. It may well be the innovation that gives back much more that it takes.

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TotalFootball

TotalFootball - the thinker's guide to the Beautiful Game

Prateek Vasisht

Written by

Write about reality with a splash of the abstract. Management Consultant | Football Fan | Design Lover. www.prateek.co.nz

TotalFootball

TotalFootball - the thinker's guide to the Beautiful Game

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