Does Soccer Still Need Headers?

It would be futile to predict when, precisely, it will come. It is not possible, from the vantage point of now, of here, to identify a specific point, or an exact date, or even a broad time frame. All that can be said is that it will come, sooner or later. The days of heading in soccer are numbered.

The ball, after all, is rolling. England’s Football Association has received permission from the IFAB, the arcane and faintly mysterious body that defines the Laws of the Game — capital L, capital G, always — to run a trial in which players under the age of 12 will not be allowed to head the ball in training. If it is successful, the change could become permanent within the next two years.

This is not an attempt to introduce an absolute prohibition of heading, of course. It is simply an application to banish deliberate heading — presumably as opposed to accidental heading — from children’s soccer.

Once players hit their teens, heading would still be gradually introduced to their repertoire of skills, albeit in a limited way: Since 2020, the F.A.’s guidelines have recommended that all players, including professionals, should be exposed to a maximum of 10 high-force headers a week in training. Heading would not be abolished, not officially.

And yet that would, inevitably, be the effect. Young players nurtured without any exposure to or expertise in heading would be unlikely to place much emphasis on it, overnight, once it was permitted. They would have learned the game without it; there would be no real incentive to favor it. The skill would gradually fall into obsolescence, and then drift inexorably toward extinction.

From a health perspective, that would not be a bad thing. In public, the F.A.’s line is that it wants to impose the moratorium while further research is done into links between heading and both Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.) and dementia. In private, it must surely recognize that it is not difficult to discern the general direction of travel.

The connection between heading and both conditions has been soccer’s tacit shame for at least two decades, if not longer. Jeff Astle, the former England striker, was ruled by a coroner to have died from an industrial disease, linked to the repeated heading of a soccer ball, as far back as 2002. He was posthumously found to have been suffering from C.T.E.

In the years since, five members of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning side have confirmed they are suffering from dementia, drawing focus on to the issue. Only one of them, Bobby Charlton, remains alive.

One study, in 2019, found that soccer players — with the exception of goalkeepers — are three and a half times more likely to suffer from neurodegenerative disease than the general population. Two years later, a similar piece of research found that defenders, in particular, have an even greater risk of developing dementia or a similar condition later in life. The more the subject is examined, the more likely it seems that minimizing how often players head the ball is in their long-term interests.

In a sporting sense, too, it is easy to believe that heading’s demise would be no great loss. The game appears, after all, to be moving beyond it organically. The percentage of headed goals is falling, thanks to the simultaneous rise in analytics — which, speaking extremely broadly, discourages (aerial) crossing as a low-probability action — and the stylistic hegemony of the school of Pep Guardiola.

Sophisticated teams, now, do their best not to cross the ball; they most certainly do not heave it forward at any given opportunity. They dominate possession or they launch precise, surgical counterattacks, and they prefer to do the vast majority of it on the ground. The sport as a whole has followed in their wake, hewing ever more closely to Brian Clough’s rather gnarled maxim that if God had intended soccer to be played in the clouds, there would be substantially more grass up there.

Certainly, it is more than possible to watch an elite game — in Spain, in particular, but in the Champions League or the Premier League or the Women’s Super League or wherever — and believe that the spectacle would not be diminished, or even notably altered, if heading was not only strictly forbidden, but had not, in fact, been invented.

But that is to ignore the fact that soccer is defined not only by what happens, but by what might have happened, and by what did not happen. It is determined not only by presence but by absence. That is true of all sports, of course, but it is particularly true of soccer, the great game of scarcity.

For much the same reasons that crossing has fallen from favor, so too has the idea of shooting from distance. Progressive coaches — either for aesthetic or for algorithmic reasons — encourage their players to wait until they have a heightened chance of scoring before actually shooting; as with headed goals, the number scored from outside the box is falling starkly, too.

That, though, has had an unintended consequence. A team that knows its opponent really does not want to shoot from distance has no incentive to break its defensive line. There is no pressing need to close down the midfielder with the ball at their feet 25 yards from goal. They are not going to shoot, because the odds of scoring are low.

And yet, by not shooting, the odds of finding the high-percentage chance are reduced, too. The defensive line does not break, so the gap — the slight misstep, the channel that briefly opens in the moment of transition from one state to another — does not come. Instead, the defense can dig into its trench, challenging the attack to score the perfect goal. It is not just the act of scoring from range that has diminished, it is the threat of it, too.

The same would be true of a soccer devoid of heading. It is not just that the way corners and free kicks are defended would be changed beyond recognition — no more crowding as many bodies as possible in or near the box — but the way that fullbacks deal with wide players, the positions that defensive lines take on the field, the whole structure of the game.

Those changes, in the sense of soccer as a sporting spectacle, are unlikely to be positive. Players may not head the ball as much as they used to, now, but they know they might have to head the ball just as much as their predecessors from a less civilized era. They cannot discount it, so they have to behave in such a way as to counteract it. The threat itself has value. Soccer is defined, still, by all the crosses that do not come.

Removing that — either by edict or by lost habit — would have the effect of removing possibility from the game. It would reduce the theoretical options available to an attacking team, and in doing so it would make the sport more predictable, more one-dimensional. It would tilt the balance in favor of those who seeks to destroy, rather than those who try to create. Clough did not quite have it right. Soccer has always been a sport of air, just as much as earth.

If heading is found — as seems likely — to endanger the long-term health of the players, of course, then that will have to change, and it would only be right to do so. No spectacle is worth such a terrible cost to those who provide it. The gains would outweigh the losses, a millionfold. But that is not the same as saying that nothing would be lost.

The end, for Spain, will always lead back to the start. It was only a couple of weeks before the start of the European Championship when Jennifer Hermoso, the country’s most reliable source of cutting edge, was ruled out of the tournament with a knee injury. It was only a couple of days before everything began that Spain lost Alexia Putellas, the game’s finest player, too.

Those are the mitigating circumstances in which Spain’s campaign at Euro 2022 will — and should — be judged, making its quarterfinal exit to the host, England, on Wednesday night somewhere in the region of a par finish for a nation stripped of two of its best players. Regret at what might have been should outweigh disappointment at what came to pass.

The reward for succeeding in this tournament, as well as the garlands and the trophy and all of that business, will, most likely, take the shape of considerable pressure at next year’s World Cup; the country that triumphs in the next week will be expected to meet, and perhaps overcome, the challenge posed by the United States and Canada, the game’s reigning powers.

Spain will be spared that, at least. And yet it should not be discounted: Despite its reduced horizons, it came within six minutes of dislodging England from a tournament it is hosting, after all. Should Hermoso be fit this time next year — or Amaiur Sarriegi have blossomed sufficiently that Hermoso’s presence is not missed — and Putellas, in particular, have recovered in time, it is not especially difficult to imagine a world in which this week was not an end at all.

In the space of, by a conservative estimate, 30 seconds, the Netherlands might have gone out of the European Championship three times. Had Daphne van Domselaar, the Dutch goalkeeper, reacted infinitesimally more slowly; had Ramona Bachmann of Switzerland made a slightly different choice; had the ball rolled this way and not that, the Netherlands, the reigning champion, might have fallen.

The temptation, within any major tournament, is to examine the likely contenders in search of some broader theme, some sweeping narrative. As a rule, it is just below the surface that the tides and the currents are most apparent.

So it is with Euro 2022. One of the game’s established powers will win it — England or France or Sweden or Germany — and claim primacy among the continent’s elite, for the time being at least. More significant, though, may be what is happening below them. Belgium and Austria, denizens of the second tier, both made the quarterfinals. Though it ended ultimately in collapse, there was a moment when it appeared a genuine possibility that Switzerland might join them.

That feels like the calling card of this tournament, more than anything else. That the level of the finest teams in Europe, the ones with abundant investment and industrialized development programs, is screaming skyward has been well telegraphed and amply documented.

That the continent’s middle class is expanding is easier to overlook, but it is no less important. Women’s soccer — like men’s soccer — should not just be the preserve of populous and wealthy nations. Strength in these matters always comes from depth. It is not just how high the elite can soar that makes games entertaining and tournaments compelling, but how broad the challenges they face along the way.

An oldie but a goodie from Alfons Sola this week. “Have you ever thought about just calling it football and stop pretending like it’s soccer?” he wrote, despite (or possibly because of) spending five years living in New Jersey. “We all know calling it soccer is some kind of strange situation that exists in the United States, right?”

Well, yes and no, Alfons. In England, for example, there is a venerable magazine called World Soccer. Many people start their Saturdays watching a show called Soccer A.M. If they choose to do so, they can then follow all of the day’s action on a program called Soccer Saturday.

I often wonder whether their presenters are told quite as often as I am that the term soccer is an American abomination. Or, for that matter, whether someone like Matt Busby, the legendary manager of Manchester United, was met with sound and fury when he had the nerve to call his autobiography ‘Soccer At The Top’.

Forgive me if we are traipsing down a familiar path, but as far as I know, “football” and “soccer” were largely interchangeable in England until some vague point in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. Quite what changed to make people quite so angry about the very sight of one of those words, I’m not sure, but I’m going to guess it had something to do with increased American attention on the sport.

Regardless, the furor over it has always struck me as odd (especially when we should be far more aggravated by the fact that the word is not, as America believes, “furor” but “furore”). Did you know the Italians call it calcio, like the thing you get in milk? That doesn’t even make any sense.

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