Player safety – is it really a priority?

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Sunday’s clash between the Melbourne Heart and Perth Glory was the hottest game in the A-League’s history. The match went ahead despite temperatures reaching extremes of 40.8°C during play.

The match was played at Lavington Sports Ground in Albury, just inside New South Wales’ border with Victoria. Football NSW’s official hot weather policy states that officials should “cancel or postpone events involving Adults at a temperature of 37°C”.

While this policy may be NSW specific it is generally adhered to nationally, as the information and recommendations within the guidelines are supported by Sports Medicine Australia (SMA), who are Australia’s “peak national umbrella body for sports medicine and sports science”.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) states that their index for the cancellation and postponement of games is the ‘Wet Bulb Globe Temperature’ (WBGT). Risk is considered high with WBGT at or above 29.4°C and extreme at or above 32.2°C. At FIFA matches, additional cooling breaks are considered when WBGT is above 31°C.

This 58 year old system is implemented worldwide too, with FIFA using it as their sole method of determining safety in regards to temperature. A study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2012 states In FIFA competitions, all decisions with respect to athlete safety and exertional heat illness risk are based on WBGT.”

We can have goal line technology, but why can’t we have a more common sense approach to the safety of players, fans and officials?

Football NSW and SMA want games cancelled or postponed when it’s over 37 degrees, and FIFA and the FFA state that it’s a ‘high risk’ for games to go ahead with a WBGT temperature over 29.4°C. So why then at 4pm local time Sunday afternoon, one hour before kickoff when the WBGT read 30°C and the local temperature according to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was an incredible 40.7°C, was the game not cancelled or postponed?

The FFA already postponed the game once, moving the kickoff from 3pm to 5pm but only after being publicly dressed down by Perth owner Tony Sage. Sage labelled the original timing of the kickoff “ludicrous and ridiculous”, and also added “it should not go ahead to protect the players and match officials.”

It was naive for the game to be scheduled in such a location at that time of day, but the decision to postpone kickoff by only two hours was perhaps an even greater folly. Why would delaying the match by two hours make a significant impact? The temperature dropped just one degree in those two hours, from 40.8°C to 39.8°C. That’s hardly making decisions “in the interests always of the player”, as Dr Jeff Steinweg, the FFA’s Head of Medical Services said in March of 2012.

Why was the game not moved to an even later kickoff time? Why was it not postponed to a day that was safer for all involved? Obviously there are several logistical issues around rearranging a game that’s being played outside of a major city, but the welfare of players, officials and fans has to take priority over any other considerations.

The Heart and the Glory do not have Asian Champions League commitments which mean that available dates are easier to come by, and Lavington Sports Ground has hosted numerous night time sports events in the past. A number of NRL and AFL pre-season games have been played there, not to mention the annual ‘City vs Country’ representative rugby league match in 2011, which was broadcast on commercial television.

There are few restrictions on either team regarding possible dates and the facilities exist to play the game under floodlights, so why not move the game to another day? Instead of a wonderful and exciting experience for the citizens of Albury, it was a dangerously hot day that threatens to leave a bad taste in the mouth. The game simply had to be rescheduled.

Broadcaster Fox Sports have been in discussions with several stakeholders recently regarding the scheduling of A-League matches, and Fox have indicated that they would not be adverse to games regularly being played on Thursday nights. This is an encouraging sign in the fight for player welfare given that broadcasters traditionally like to keep matches at their original allocated times.

SMA’s ‘Beat the Heat’ factsheet states “Players who feel unusually fatigued or who appear distressed should be withdrawn from the activity.” Anyone watching the game on Sunday could see that the majority of the players were unusually fatigued. It’s only natural when playing in such extreme conditions. The players and officials are humans and need to be treated properly.

It doesn’t matter what scale FIFA or the FFA comes up with to determine player safety, a game that kicks off when the temperature is nigh on 40°C is just unsafe, for everyone involved. Whilst WBGT takes into account humidity, wind speed and sunlight as well as the temperature, no combination of these elements could make playing a game of football at 39.8°C in any way safe.

This is not the first time the FFA has come under fire for a reluctance to make the proper scheduling adjustments to ensure player safety.

Earlier this season there were concerns about player welfare during the Perth vs Adelaide United match at NIB Stadium on Saturday November 16th. The game kicked off at 2.30pm local time and despite the WBGT reading not meeting the necessary levels for the game to be called off, multiple players reported headaches, vomiting and excessive weight loss after the encounter.

PFA General Manager Adam Vivian stated that heat remained one of the biggest concerns for players within the A-League.

Heat is an issue that has been continually raised by the players in our discussions with them.

“A common sense approach has to prevail as compromising safety can place players at extreme risk.”

There were also suggestions of player welfare being compromised during the match between Perth and the Central Coast Mariners on March 11th 2012. The game got underway as scheduled at 4.30pm local time despite requests from then coach Graham Arnold and the club’s doctor to delay the kickoff. The temperature was around 36°C at the start of the match, and Arnold believed the welfare of the players was marginalised, saying:

“For me, I just want some sense. It’s crazy playing football in those conditions. There were two doctors and a match commissioner who made the decision.

“When our doctor turned up…he said the match should be delayed by an hour. It’s too hot…There used to be a rule in the old NSL that you couldn’t kick off before six o’clock in summer. I don’t know where that rule’s gone.

“For me I could see from the sides that both teams were shot. I just worry about player welfare. Maybe it’s something the PFA need to look at…It’s just common sense.”

There are even greater concerns regarding next years’ Asian Cup, to be held on Australian soil during the month of January. The tournament will be played under FIFA guidelines and the concern surrounds the fact that the FFA’s policy regarding fluid breaks is actually a slightly more forgiving one than that of FIFA, allowing breaks in play even when WBGT temperatures are lower than FIFA’s standard of 31°C WBGT.

Bear in mind that the SMA’s ‘Beat the Heat’ factsheet also states at 30°C WBGT, participants and organisers should “consider postponement to a cooler part of the day or cancellation” and that the risk of heat illness in those conditions is “extreme”.

One of the preeminent sports science groups says it’s unsafe to participate in physical activity at one reading, and the governing body of the world’s most popular sport will only allow water breaks when the WGBT reaches a higher level? Surely that is not in the interests of players or officials.

Perhaps FIFA and the FFA need to look at how they determine each of the categories for WBGT readings. ‘High risk’ should possibly be labelled ‘extreme’, and maybe there needs to be a steadfast rule on what is and isn’t safe, rather than just guidelines which arguably leave too much room for interpretation.

FIFPro, the world players’ union certainly thinks so, as they indicated in a statement issued in December last year. “The World Footballer’s Association is of the opinion that the aforementioned cooling breaks are insufficient. FIFPro advises FIFA to allow additional cooling breaks at a lower WBGT, namely from 27.9 degrees.”

We also need to remember that those on the pitch are employees of the FFA and the clubs, as is every footballer and official worldwide. There are few other lines of work where employers would even be able to subject their employees to equivalent conditions.

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) Special Counsel Brendan Schwab stressed the importance of providing a safe working environment following the Glory v Adelaide match earlier this season.

“The players are legally entitled to a work environment free from any unreasonable risk to their health and safety,” Schwab said.

“All efforts must be made to ensure this is the case and if there is any doubt the decision must be made to ensure the welfare of the players is put first.”

FIFPro echoed these thoughts late last year.

“FIFPro would like to remind FIFA that professional footballers are workers in the eyes of the law. Accordingly, football authorities, including FIFA, are legally obliged to provide a safe working environment and cannot neglect this obligation for any whatsoever business consideration.”

Both of those quotes from FIFPro are from a statement regarding the expected conditions at the World Cup in Brazil later this year. Dangerous conditions for football are not just a problem in the A-League or the Asian Cup, but for the biggest tournament in the world. And although climate is far from the biggest issue surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it’s still significant enough to warrant discussions over shifting the global football calendar so that the tournament can be staged in a safer climate.

So while Brazil and Qatar may be being grilled over their climates and scheduling for tournaments right now, let’s not forget that it’s our turn next year. The Asian Cup is a huge tournament and the FFA and the Asian Football Confederation, as well as with FIFA, need to be proactive and ensure that matches are scheduled at responsible times. All five host cities- Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Newcastle and Canberra- are all likely to be sweltering come next January.

This is clearly not just a domestic problem and football’s governing bodies need to realise that player welfare must be the top priority in all instances. Decision makers need to use common sense and foresight to ensure the safety of players, officials and fans.

FIFA’s commitment is to always do what’s best “For the Game. For the World.” What FIFA must recognise is that endangering the health of those involved is not fulfilling that commitment. Without players, officials and fans, there is no game.

Andrew Cussen

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