22 August 2017 – Let’s face it – at the end of the day, to most fans around the world, football is football! All that matters are the players, our favourite teams and the number of goals scored.

However, how much attention do we really pay to the ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of football? One such aspect that most probably had never crossed any of our minds in our years of being football fans, are the medical and health practices of the game. We simply take it for granted and lack basic knowledge of this particular aspect.

In this article we aim to educate fans on the importance of these vital practices and provide insight as to why it is indeed a critical part of the game, without which, there will be dire consequences, not just for players themselves but for football as a whole.

Sport itself has numerous health benefits and is one of the best forms of exercise, particularly football. However, there is still an inherent risk of injury, medical complications, ill-health and sometimes even death. At the end of the day it is not only men, but children as well as women (professional and amateur) who are involved, especially with football being the most popular sport on earth. Hence the need for proper healthcare systems to ensure prevention, management and treatments of any such ailments or medical-related issues.

How many times have we seen on-field deaths in the form of heart failures, dehydration, various injuries (leg breaks, torn ligaments, fractured ankles, hamstrings etc.), concussions, lightning fatalities, poor fitness of players and so much more?

FIFA’s well-documented and respected Medical and Research Centre (F-MARC) provides the football world with the ultimate platform for medical and health solutions in order for the game to keep moving forward. Important, key factors to take note of here include: learning (how to limit the risks and manage them better), research (FIFA has over the year’s published over 400 related articles on the subject), prevention (eliminating ill-health in the first place), engagement (being a global game – international communication is key).

Other aspects to take note of here include: physical risks (equipment), management (laws of the game changing to aid better health) and the human factor (player behaviour).

F-MARC has also developed new ways in which governing bodies can communicate risks to stakeholders, including the use of journal supplements, guidance documents, videos as well as dedicated web pages. New initiatives aimed at providing better medical services within football have also been established in the form of FIFA Medical Centres of Excellence and the freely available web-based FIFA medical network for sports physicians and physiotherapists (a key factor in ‘recovery’).

Education is the key to prevention and therefore FIFA supports the “Diploma in Football Medicine” for doctors, physiotherapists and paramedical staff”, stated Dr Michel D’ Hooghe – Chairman of the FIFA Medical Committee.

Other methods of managing the medical and healthcare side of football and ensuring best practices include the building of specialist medical facilities and rehab centres within each country and unique systems being put into place to assist with injury prevention, pre-competition medical assessments, sudden cardiac death prevention and management strategies (CPR training is vital here), preparing players for the altitude and heat factors, concussion management, proper pitches and artificial turf surfaces, drug testing and age determination.

Injury prevention seems to be the modern way of going about things compared to the past in which actual treatment of injuries was the norm. How can injuries be prevented though? Some things to consider include: pre-season physicals/medicals, use of proper fitting equipment (shin guards), hydrate adequately during games, maintain proper fitness/conditioning (gyming and nutrition) and overall long-term planning.

The South African Football Association (SAFA) takes the medical and healthcare aspect of football very seriously and has a number of programmes, systems and procedures in place to ensure the best possible practices in this regard.

Such systems and procedures take into consideration any number of key aspects. These include detailed pre and post camp medical plans (what or do in medical emergencies), physiological assessment tools, concussion assessment guidelines, treatment plans and reports, required information on medical facilities available on route to any destination (training or match-day) and much more.

Available on the SAFA website are any number of documents and information relating to medical and healthcare. These include recovery modalities, precautions in dealing with lightning, nutrition in football, sudden cardiac arrest, HIV/AIDS, First Aid manuals and training, medical assessment tools, anti-doping regulations and much more. The above aspects are too detailed to get into but none-the-less extremely critical as a whole to the overall process of proper football health practice.  SAFA along with Netcare are also in partnership to discover new, innovative ways in which better healthcare methods can be facilitated in football development.

The recent International Conference in Sports Rehabilitation and Traumatology which was held in Barcelona from the 13th – 15th of May 2017 focused on “The Future of Football Medicine”.  The overall theme that SAFA representatives took out of this event was that football medicine and science are the cornerstones of modern football and without it, the sport simply won’t survive. If ever there was proof of just how important proper health practices are in football, this is pretty much it.

All above-mentioned topics are vitally important if we wish to continue enjoying the global game and its stars. Here’s hoping that all other national footballing bodies indeed have similar systems and procedures in place as well as plans to properly ensure the overall future wellness and implementation of the best possible health and medical structures, for the benefit of the sport, players and all other relevant parties concerned.

By Dhirshan Gobind