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'Messi and Ronaldo could use prosthesis after they turn 50', FIFA Medical Committee chairman warns

Belgium's Dr Michel D’Hooghe is chairman of the FIFA and UEFA Medical Committees and was a member of the FIFA Executive Committee for 29 years. (Photo: FIFA)
by Deyan Spasov, AIPS Young Reporter, Bulgaria

COLOGNE, December 18, 2017 - Dr Michel D’Hooghe is one of the most influential medical experts in the field of football. The specialist in rehabilitation and physical medicine was part of the FIFA Executive Committee for 29 years and is currently the chairman of both the FIFA and UEFA Medical Committees.

Dr D’Hooghe started as a doctor in his home-town Club Brugge. Between 2003 and 2009 he served as a President of the club. He also left a legacy behind him after being a President of the Belgian Football Federation between 1987 and 2001. At the beginning of the century, he was one of the key figures responsible for the organizing of EURO 2000 where his country was co-host.

Earlier this week, Dr D'Hooghe spoke to Masters’ students from the German Sport University in Cologne, giving important medical hints to the young professionals in the spheres of Sports Development and Management.

Cardiac arrests and progressive overload

In the past 13 years over 20 professional football players passed away as a result of cardiac arrest. Dr D'Hooghe considers this issue as one of the biggest challenges standing in front of the FIFA and UEFA Medical Committees.

"There are two sides of battling this medical issue. The first is the prevention and the second is the treatment. Through researches, we recognized that the cardiac arrests mainly are a result of predisposition. For example, a lot of tall players with African origins have the predisposition of cardiac problems. The other factor is the overload and the big amount of matches.

“Of course, here it is a matter also of commercial interests. But a lot of players use too often anti-inflammatory drugs which has a bad influence on the heart. I sincerely want to implement on every stadium and training pitch the use of a heart defibrillator because sometimes it is a matter of seconds," underlined Dr D’Hooghe.

"Due to the progressive overload, big amount of players have also serious problems with bones, muscles, joints. If we continue like that all of these star players now will have to use prosthesis when they turn 50 years old," he added.

Mental issues

Another scourge of modern football which should not be neglected are psychological issues. Sometimes judged by thousands, the players fall into the trap of depression. That is when they need professional psychological support. Is this a taboo topic in the world of football?

"It's me standing and talking in front of 50 students. Now imagine playing in front of 60,000 passionate fans all of them coaches in their minds. It is an enormous pressure. The psychological pillar is one of the four important in our job in the Medical Committees. I can recommend psychological treatment of the players in every team around the world but I cannot force the clubs to do it. It is important also for every team doctor to be prepared to deal with these kind of problems,” concluded Dr D’Hooghe.


Bayern Munich team doctor assesses the state of forward Robert Lewandowski. (Photo: Focus.de)

Decisions making

It seems like the responsibilities of the team doctors grow with every year. Dr D’Hooghe pointed out three paradoxes which a lot of the specialists in the football clubs around the world meet throughout their careers.

"First of all the team doctor is responsible for the health of the player. He consults him which is the right treatment. On the other hand, the doctor is an employee of the club. The staff and the directors could want this player for example to start in the next match because he is very important for the team.

“My advice is to never forget the Hippocratic Oath that the health of my patient will be the first consideration. The second paradox is that the team doctor used to be the leader of the medical group but nowadays he is more like a coordinator of a whole medical team. The third paradox is about the information that the doctor could give about his patients. On one hand is the general information for the public but on the other hand, he has his professional secrets and he also has to respect the privacy of the players. Here you have to make the decision, thanks to your knowledge but also thanks to your experience"


Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong committees one of the most talked about fouls in recent history on Xabi Alonso at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Final between Netherlands and Spain. (Photo: Getty Images)

Harsh tackles

If you break the bone of someone on the street you will most likely end up in jail. But is it the same if you do it on the pitch as a part of a football match? What is FIFA’s stance on this?

"I can give you examples from my own country. When the ball is far and there is absolutely no reason for a contact the victim could go to court against the attacker. But is not the same case when the ball is between the two players, they hit each other and as a result, there is a broken bone or serious injury because that is a part of the risks of the game," clarified Dr D’Hooghe.

Doping tests

In his lecture, Dr. D’Hooghe highlighted that worldwide the positive results of football players after doping tests is below 0.05. But what is the reason for this impressively low result? Is doping really used so rarely in football? Is the way of testing really so strong that the players are afraid of the consequences? Or is it that doping is just a step ahead of the testing equipment?

"If the doping is a step ahead, then it is not only the case in football. It is completely possible. Sometimes the medicals need some time to detect it. I have zero tolerance for doping. That has to be very clear. Because it is against the ethics of sport. Because it is against the ethics of competition. And certainly for me as a doctor because it is against the health of the athletes. Many young athletes have died because of doping. If we do not have many doping cases and have a lot of rumours, my answer is always - I listen to facts, not to rumours," indicated Dr D’Hooghe.

Killer headers

Why do football players use their head so often in the game? Of course, the header is a joy to watch but doesn't it have a negative effect on the health of the footballers. And surely we have to keep this in mind if we are talking about the health of the young players - children, teenagers?

"UEFA now has two studies in this direction. One in Germany and one in Scotland. In the English press news came out that that some former professional players at the end of their life suffered from encephalopathies or dementia. We asked if this could be controlled. It is especially important in the case of heading performed by young players. The development of the brain is usually finished around 13 or 14 years old. The question is do the players have to hit the ball before that. On the other hand, if the players use headers only after turning 14 years old, their head and neck muscles would not be well-developed. So you should better allow them to hit the ball with their head and I am in favour of heading from youngest age but with serious control of the weight of the balls. So the players will know how to hit the ball but they would use much lighter ones," Dr D’Hooghe explained.

29 years at FIFA

Apart from his medical responsibilities Dr D’Hooghe was already part of the Executive Committee of FIFA for 29 years. What does he have to say about the corruption scandals and the changes in the Executive Committee of the world football governing body throughout the years:

"In the beginning with Havelange, it was very different. Sometimes he took decisions completely autonomously, on his own. But of course, the society has changed. The society of football has also changed. Under Blatter, we became much more open, much more communicative. We had a lot of important discussions. And nowadays because of the complete change of FIFA, the Executive Committee became a Council with 45 people. I have the impressions now that more and more the decisions are not taken autonomously.

“I never excluded the role that interests played. But when I was there I had the feeling that I could freely raise my voice. And that was important. The corruption in FIFA completely ruined the people's perception of the Association. It lost part of its glamour. You have to be sure that all of us, the members of FIFA, are really angry at these people. We are ashamed and we condemn them strongly," underlined Dr D’Hooghe.

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