Experts call for a less taxing schedule to ease the pressure off players.
The 2020 UEFA European Football Championship, the Euro for soccer fans, was a strange affair.
First off, because of Covid-19, the prestigious tournament was postponed until the summer of 2021. Second, the entire championship was overshadowed by a harrowing affair involving one man: Christian Eriksen.
On June 12, while representing his country Denmark in a match against Finland, the creative midfielder collapsed. The response from medics was instant, with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and defibrillation being performed on the field of play
Soon after, Eriksen was taken away on a stretcher, and the match suspended. Somewhat disgracefully, UEFA officials insisted that the two teams resume the match later that evening, even though players, especially Eriksen’s Danish colleagues, were clearly traumatised by what they had just witnessed.
Although Eriksen survived, according to the team doctor Morten Boesen he “was gone” before being brought back to life. It was later confirmed that the football star had suffered a cardiac arrest, a medical emergency involving the failure of the heart to pump enough blood around the body.
Eriksen is not the only professional footballer to have had a brush with death. In fact, he appears to be just one of many. As football journalist Chris Wheeler recently noted, “barely a week goes by at the moment without news of another cardiac-related incident in the game”.
Shortly before Wheeler’s comments, Sergio Agüero, one of the finest strikers to have ever played the game, announced his retirement from football — and for good reason. On October 31 last year, the Argentinian legend was taken to hospital with chest discomfort. The 33-year-old was suffering from cardiac arrhythmia, a condition that involves irregularities of the heartbeat.
For a player of Aguero’s calibre to bow out in such a manner was as regrettable as it was saddening. In November last year, Charlie Wyke, 28, a striker who plays for tier three English club Wigan, suffered a cardiac arrest in the middle of training. The club’s manager, Leam Richardson, saved the player’s life by performing CPR.
What is happening here? Why are so many elite (and the word elite must really be stressed) footballers suffering from heart-related issues? This is an important question that is in urgent need of answers. It doesn’t make sense. In many ways, it seems somewhat paradoxical. After all, football players have never been fitter; they never had greater access to sports scientists and medical experts.
Yet, somewhat unfathomably, they appear to be more at risk of heart-related issues and near-death experiences. Could the worrying flood of heart-related diseases have anything to do with Covid, or maybe even the vaccines designed to inoculate all citizens, footballers included?
In short, no. As Professor Sanjay Sharma, a renowned UK-based sports cardiologist, told Wheeler: “Everyone is jumping to the conclusion that it is Covid-related or, even worse, that vaccine-related myocarditis may be responsible for this spate of cardiac issues that we are seeing in football players,” he said, adding, “I can tell you now that Eriksen's arrest had nothing to do with Covid or the vaccine, nor was Aguero's cardiac scare.”
Heart-related scares were part of the football scene long before the pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. On June 26, 2003, during a match against Colombia, a Cameroonian midfielder by the name of Marc-Vivien Foé collapsed on the field.
Although medics spent 45 minutes attempting to restart his heart, attempts to resuscitate him failed. Foe, 28, had succumbed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a disease in which the heart muscle becomes hypertrophied, or abnormally thick, thus making it harder to pump blood. Almost 9 years later, a player by the name of Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during a televised FA Cup match between his club, Bolton Wanderers, and Tottenham Hotspur. Unlike Foe, Muamba survived, but only just.
TRT World reached out to Dr Christian Schmied, a world-renowned physician and head of outpatient cardiology at The University Hospital of Zurich, Switzerland, for comment on the issue. We asked Dr Schmied whether or not there has actually been an increase in the number of footballers collapsing on pitches around the world.
“I actually do not think so," he responded. "Cases might seem to increase as there is more public awareness and more people performing sport at a higher level. Furthermore, based on scientific data and registries we know much more about sudden cardiac death in sports than 10-12 years ago.”
In other words, saliency and science have merged. The media is more likely to highlight cases, and medical professionals are more likely to research them.
Today, it seems, the world is paying greater attention to the welfare of footballers; we no longer just view these elite athletes as performers or celebrities. They are human beings; they bleed just like us, and, sadly, they die just like us, too—sometimes prematurely, and sometimes tragically. Also, statistically speaking, with more than 113,000 professional soccer players registered worldwide, we should expect tragedies from time to time. There are just so many players playing the game.
Dr Schmied cautioned that “we have to differentiate regarding the underlying causes of SCD (sudden cardiac death): In younger athletes, the vast majority of deaths is due to an underlying, hereditary disease.” Marc-Vivien Foe succumbed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which happens to be a hereditary condition known to increase the risk of sudden death during physical exercise.
Quite often, Dr Schmied added, “these diseases are just there and it is our challenge to detect them by adequate screening.”
However, he added, “stress, tension/pressure and competition increase the risk for arrhythmia and SCD.”
It is important to remember that although football players have never been fitter, they have never been more consumed by professional responsibilities.
The amount of games a professional football player must play in any given season is far greater today than it was at the turn of the century. Footballers train harder than ever before, meaning they push their bodies, and their hearts, to the limit on a regular basis.
In England, home to the Premier League, the most competitive football league in the world, players and managers have recently called for a less congested schedule. Perhaps, for the welfare of the footballers and their families, their calls should be answered. They are, after all, human beings. And they must be treated as such.