In the last few months the issue of concussion amongst NHL and NFL players seems to have hit a tipping point.
In the NFL the new sideline testing protocol for head injuries came under intense scrutiny during the recent season, and in the NHL the concussion suffered by poster boy Sidney Crosby that has prevented him from even practising since January 5th, and the recent death of Bob Probert at the age of 45 have only served to underline the serious issue of safety when it comes to sport.
Soccer faced a similar situation (although a very different injury) in the 1990s, and it took the early retirement of one of the sports best players to force the authorities into action.
If Marco van Basten were in his prime today we can’t know for certain what he would be worth, but he would be in the Ronaldo, Messi bracket of players. In his five years at Ajax he scored an astonishing 128 goals in 133 appearances, and after his transfer to AC Milan he notched 90 goals in 147 outings.
He won three league titles with each club and two European Cups with the Italians, two World Soccer player of the Year awards as well as almost countless more individual and team trophies, including the European Championships with the Netherlands.
Yet van Basten was effectively forced to retire from the game due to injury at the age of 28. That may not seem so unusual in one respect since many players find the wear and tear of the sport detrimental to their physical well-being, but van Basten’s injuries were different.
They were the result of pre-meditated tackles from a series of ruthless defenders who had worked out that if they couldn’t stop the Dutchman when he was on the pitch then they would try to get him off it.
Week after week in Serie A he was subjected to players scything him down from behind with very little pretension at getting the ball, and week after week he got no protection from the referee.
In many ways his courage was remarkable, willing to take a pass knowing the inevitable pain that would soon follow, but a vicious tackle by Marseille’s Basile Boli in the 1993 European Cup Final finally proved a bridge too far and despite two seasons of flirting with a comeback he eventually retired for good in 1995.
After discussions with van Basten FIFA banned the tackle from behind shortly before the 1994 World Cup Finals. The realisation had hit home that the best players needed to be allowed to play and that the sport as a whole could not survive whilst allowing career threatening challenges to go unpunished.
No doubt there were people at the time crying out that this would ruin the game and that soccer was a contact sport; the same things that are said about Hockey and the NFL today but, contrary to that view, the game survived and even went from strength to strength.
Marco van Basten lost his career because the authorities were slow to act to the vicious treatment dished out to him. What will an athlete have to lose before the leaders in other sports also face up to their responsibilities?
You can find more of Russell’s writings on soccer at The Vancouver Sun.
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