When fans describe football games as deadly, the word ‘deadly’ is usually being used in a figurative sense. Unfortunately football can at times be literally deadly.
One deadly effect of football in the news this week is the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Not a ball has been kicked but the Qatar government’s figures show that nearly 1,000 migrant workers died1 in 2012 and 2013. The use and ill treatment of migrant construction workers in that country is not new but the World Cup related construction projects have boosted the number employed. The news that bribes were used to influence the voting on where to hold the World Cup can surely have surprised nobody. I find it hard to think of any other reason why anyone would think that’s a good place to have it.
The game can be deadly for footballers too. When Jeff Astle died in 2002 it was thought that he had Alzheimer’s. New tests have recently been done on his brain and it has been announced that he was killed by chronic traumatic encephalopathy2 (CTE). This is a condition often linked to boxing and sports such as American football because it is caused by repeated trauma to the head.
Jeff Astle’s family always believed that football had killed him and have campaigned for the Football Association to conduct research into the risks of headers. The FA did promise to study the links between heading a ball and neurological problems among ex-players but nothing has been published yet. So the family has renewed their call on the FA to take action3. The death of another footballer called Jeff led to a breakthrough in the treatment of polio, when Jeff Hall’s widow helped to publicise the need for vaccination4. I hope that the efforts of Jeff Astle’s family will lead to a breakthrough in the detection of brain injuries in footballers.
And the Hillsborough inquests continue, a reminder that football can be deadly for supporters too. The timing of these new inquests, 25 years after the disaster, is an indication of the struggle and persistence of their families and the people of Liverpool to bring the truth to light.
I had one brief experience of feeling fear in a football crowd, in far less extreme circumstances than those experienced in the crowd at Hillsborough 25 years ago and I wouldn’t want to ever feel that way again. It was at Birmingham City’s Europa Cup game at Bruges in 2011. Some of the numbers on the seats were hard to decipher and people gave up trying to find the right place and stood anywhere including the aisles. The seat backs were low, the crowd swayed alarmingly, a man behind me had had too much Belgian beer and kept falling on me. I had visions of tumbling over those seats and ending up at the bottom of a pile of bodies. When stewards arrived to sort things out and offered a move to the lower tier, I gratefully accepted.
My main wish for the Word Cup this year is that it won’t be deadly and that all the footballers and fans that go will come home safely. It would also be nice if England won a few games.