Consensus on heading is still up in the air – Andy Massey
March 11, 2020
New Fifa medical director Andy Massey admits the world governing body is still grappling with the fallout from the recent ban on children heading the ball.
While the law introduced by the relevant football authorities in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland has caused some consternation among football circles, Massey’s own opinion, and one which is held by many, is that it is much better to air on the side of caution, particularly when it comes to something as precious as kids and their undeveloped bodies.
Still, the ex-Bangor defender concedes there is no overarching consensus in the medical world on the issue.
They know that footballers are far more likely to develop degenerative brain conditions in later life, but while heading the ball appears the most obvious factor in this, Massey says research is ongoing to establish a definitive, causal link.
“This question is exactly what I hope to be able to answer with the role,” he told Match On Tuesday.
“We know that footballers are three times more likely to suffer neurodegenerative disease than the general public, the recent study by Willie Stewart detailed this.
“But does heading cause this? The simple answer is, we have not proven it yet.
“It is up to governing bodies like Fifa to detail the research that will help to answer these questions. But this type of research could potentially take years.
“My view is that a child’s brain is such an important developing organ. If there is even a suspicion that an event or events could possibly have a detrimental effect on that development, then surely it is incumbent on us, as a society, to protect from that risk as much as we can.”
Massey got his first job in physiotherapy out in Australia, then returned home to work part-time with the Belfast Giants – incidentally, where he would meet his wife Sarah, also a physio – which allowed him to go back to university to study for a medical degree and then a masters in sports medicine.
He spent four years working at the IFA alongside Michael O’Neill, and latterly at Liverpool, before taking the reins this month as director of Fifa’s medical department.
And he’s excited by his new role, even if he admits it has taken him out of his comfort zone.
Whereas at Melwood, Liverpool’s training complex, his main responsibility was as a doctor to the players, from the millionaire superstars down to the academy prospects, the remit at his new job is far more wide-ranging, taking in issues as disparate as childhood obesity to sudden cardiac death.
“I was so fortunate to be offered the Fifa job and honestly don’t think I would have left Liverpool for any other role in sport,” he said.
“I am effectively moving away from what I think I am quite good at – treating players and the clinical hands-on side of sports medicine to an area that is more managerial.
“With Fifa, I hope I have the ability to affect change.
“It is a global organisation with global reach, spanning the complete pyramid of football from the World Cup final to grassroots.
Primary school kids are no longer allowed to head the ball in training.
"I think football can be used to address the global obesity crisis. It can influence gender equality, promoting female participation throughout the world.
“It can touch the deprived areas and provide a platform for children and adolescents to thrive and develop.
Irish FA chief Patrick Nelson says new heading guidelines in youth football here are "right direction of travel"
“All of these add to health benefits throughout the world. It gives me the opportunity to look at scientific research into the game, prevention and rehabilitation strategies.
"It will allow me to develop protocols and policies for the major issues facing football, such as concussion, sudden cardiac death, osteoarthritis etc.
“But to be brutally honest,” he adds with a laugh, “the reason I decided to join Fifa was after a very emotional chat with my 10-year-old son.
“He sat me down and said, ‘Daddy, I love Liverpool and will miss going to the matches… but you have to do what is best and best is getting me more Fifa points for Fifa 20’ – his favourite game.”