The reprehensible reaction to Loris Karius’s howlers highlights the need for not only empathy and perspective but better diagnosis and policy changes in high-performance sports like football, where head injuries are rampant.
“Central to the story was the unfortunate Loris Karius, whose two glaring efforts will haunt him for years. However, we all make mistakes at work sometimes: some will crash fork-lift trucks, some will miss deadlines…It’s important to retain a sense of perspective.”
– David Squires
When Liverpool lost the 2017-18 Champions League final vs Real Madrid, I felt winded and a bit dizzy. It was the longest and the most audible sigh in my millenial life. In a pub filled with five hundred or more Liverpool fans, I was lonely and my back was a little sore.
Writing on the positives from this defeat, Dan Fieldsend highlighted how the game has a way of mimicking life and inadvertently teaching morals. The final mimicked my state of mind, a heady cocktail of sadness and hope.
On the night, some learned the need for squad depth, some learned the need for the kind of expediency which winning back-to-back Champions League titles brings, and some learned that Liverpool needed a new keeper. I looked at the screen and saw Loris Karius, clasped hands, walking towards the Liverpool end of the Dinamo’s stadium with a nose full of snot and eyes full of tears. I learned that he needed an arm around his shoulder.
I felt like reaching my arm through, into the television, and around Loris Karius’s shoulders (only if he wasn’t alarmed by a sudden disembodied arm consoling him), telling him that things like ‘throwing the ball to the foot of the opposing striker’ happens. It happens in life to all of us, this symbolic throwing of the ball to the foot of the opposing striker. The memory of these incidents vary starkly from the perspective of the viewer, to that of the poor bloke trying to punch a ball zooming at him like a cannon, moments after having had his nerves shot to Timbuktu.
To be a goalkeeper is to be alone
“He wears the number 1 on his back. The first to be paid? No, the first one to pay. It’s always the keeper’s fault. And when it isn’t he still gets blamed. And when the team has a bad afternoon, he’s the one who pays the bill. The rest of the players can blow it once or twice in a while and then redeem themselves with a spectacular dribble or a masterful pass, a well-placed volley. Not him. With a single slip up the goalie can ruin a match or lose a championship, and the fans suddenly forget all his feats and condemn him to eternal disgrace.”
– Eduardo Galeano
Julian Barnes, formerly a Sunday League goalkeeper and currently a Booker-Prize-winning author, wrote a book called The Sense of an Ending. The book is about the investigation of memory, and to read it, you must exercise yours. He will drop details like breadcrumbs scattered along a foggy forest, and to truly understand the story you have to pay attention to the crumbs and all the differing points of view. This story is built on the premise that a singular moment can be two in number, depending on where you’re looking from.
Goalkeepers, quite literally, have a different view of the game. It is a position of isolation. But there is a trend. Goalkeepers perhaps talk to themselves more than any player on the pitch because they are almost always left on their own. The ilk accommodates the eccentrics, the brooders, the philosophers, and it is football’s most anecdotal, isolating and punishing position; one that is prone to depression.
What happens to us in the shadows and privacy of our everyday lives happened to Karius in the burning white spotlight of a global event, the UEFA Champions League Final. How would we have coped?
“I was very bad,” the matador said. “The second time I was better. You remember?” He turned to the critic.
He was not at all embarrassed. He talked of his work as something altogether apart from himself.
– The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
People who live the most healthy, balanced lives, are often the ones who dissociate their self-worth from their job descriptions. A bad day at work doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shite, nor does it invalidate your existence. Psychologists and life-coaches will recommend this line of thinking. But what of the footballer whose life is a spectacle to be consumed and subjectivized, and whose mistakes are uploaded on countless doctored Vines, Youtube videos and memes? A cynic would say it comes with the territory and the pay grade. But where does one draw the line?
Death threats is where you draw the line. Loris Karius’s Instagram message requests over the last few weeks are symptomatic of the lines of proportion and culpability blurring in football to the degree that it is reprehensible.
This is not on. Human civilization may be three bad meals and a potent solar flare knocking off all the satellites in the sky away from collapsing into complete barbarism, but until then, correlation and causation should be examined separately; empathy is to be exercised and lessons from history need to be invoked. But first, empathy.
Dazed and Confused
“On May 31, 2018 Mr Karius underwent a comprehensive examination by Dr Ross Zafonte and Dr Lenore Herget in Boston at Massachusetts General Hospital and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. We have concluded that Mr Karius sustained a concussion during the match 26 May 2018.
“At the time of our evaluation Mr Karius’s principal residual symptoms and objective signs suggested that visual spatial dysfunction existed and likely occurred immediately following the event. Additional symptomatic and objectively noted areas of dysfunction also persisted. It could be possible that such deficits would affect performance.”
This was a statement released on Monday by Massachusetts General Hospital hospital on Dr Zafonte’s behalf. This news has been met with every reaction between lukewarm empathy to sickening skepticism from fans and footballers alike.
Karius’s mistake has, for better or for worse, exposed football’s papering over the cracks on the matters of head trauma and mental health and the general understanding of the football-following masses. While multi-million dollar training facilities are being embellished and upgraded to condition the body of the athlete, very little is done in practice to nurture the mind.
Up until Professor Steve Peter’s appointment (psychiatrist to snooker legend Ronnie O’Sullivan) at Liverpool FC in 2014, the presence of a therapist at the top-tier of English football was largely unheard of.
It was only last year that researchers and doctors called for heading to be banned at U-11 in youth-levels, citing research on potential brain damage. The research followed reports that professional players who head balls may be more prone to developing dementia later in life. US Soccer banned it immediately across youth level, while the FA being the FA twiddled thumbs and waited for the issue to subside.
Dawn Astle, the daughter of former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle, who died aged 59 suffering from early onset dementia, said it was “obvious that it [his dementia] was linked to his footballing career”.
The inquest into his death in 2002 found that repeatedly heading heavy leather footballs had contributed to trauma to his brain.
By the end he “didn’t even know he’d ever been a footballer,” she said, before adding: “Everything football ever gave him, football had taken away.”
– Report by Smitha Mundasad, The BBC, 2017
This sort of parochialism is characteristic of the English mentality of Roy of the Rovers, blood and thunder football. This brawn-before-brain approach percolates up and down the cracks of the anachronus English Football Association, where the weeds of widespread ignorance take root.
Begging to differ with Bill Shankly
Football is mighty important, sure. It is after all a multi-billion dollar industry and the prize money of winning the Champions League Final goes a long way in equipping a team for the following season. But let’s consider that Loris Karius played with a concussion on that night, at a stage that demands catch-a-fly-with-a-chopstick levels of reflexes and concentration. You see how this is problematic? A pilot, for a lack of a better example, wouldn’t be allowed to fly a plane if he had double-vision. In both cases, the man is culpable for the fortunes of those around him.
Players play for pride and applause. Scars from broken bones make for both anecdotes in a pub and badges of honour. It is a high-performance environment where professionals are encouraged to ‘man-up’ from the earliest phases of their development.
The risk of not carrying on equates to another player taking your place. Malpractices of shooting one’s body numb with painkillers to be fit for selection is prevalent in the industry.
Liverpool cult-hero Daniel Agger, once one of the best young defenders in Europe, admitted that swallowing painkiller pills instead of his pride left his body writhing in agony. In a tearful interview with the Guardian, he appealed to footballers to learn from his mistakes. Very few have.
“My partner, Sofie said it time and time again, that I should stop taking the medicine but it has gone in one ear and out the other,” Agger said. “So [when I decided to stop playing] she was pleased too because of the pain I have had and because I have taken so much [medicine] just to keep standing.”
– Daniel Agger
Recent statements from Sergio Ramos gives the non-football fan a glimpse of the toxic masculinity that football fan is all too used to – Ramos suggested in not so many words that the injured Mo Salah should have carried on with painkillers and that Karius was faking it.
Real Madrid’s captain and the shining beacon to everything that’s cynical in modern football, was the chief saboteur on the night. First, involved in Salah’s injury, which dramatically reduced chances of a Liverpool victory; Ramos’s wanton elbow to the face of Loris Karius while diving for a ball which was nowhere near him, was shithouse behaviour at its best.
Putting players first
Contrary to what the football-fan-turned-diagnostician on Twitter will tell you, most cases of concussions, like Karius’s case, do not lead to immediate loss of consciousness. There is a spectrum of symptoms. The sport of rugby among others and its followers are more prescient to this fact.
Section 1 of form 1 of the World Rugby Head Injury Protocol stipulates that a player must be removed from the field of play for thorough inspection if any of these signs are exhibited:
- Confirmed loss of consciousness
- Suspected loss of consciousness
- Tonic posturing
- Balance disturbance / ataxia
- Clearly dazed
- Player not orientated in time, place and person
- Definite confusion
- Definite behavioural changes
- Oculomotor signs (e.g. spontaneous nystagmus)
- On field identification of signs or symptoms of concussion
To safeguard the health of a potentially concussed player, rugby allows a 10-minute protocol where he is subbed off temporarily and put through a multi-modal battery of tests until the team doctor in her/his best of knowledge is sure that the head trauma will not present itself later on. This affords the medical team time and space, lowering the margin of error.
This margin of error exponentially increases in the meagre seconds that are allowed to football’s medical staff and they are deprived of their importance. This margin of error, as showcased by the Karius incident, can adversely affect the performance and decide results. Therefore, it’d be to the best interest of football’s decision-makers to take off their blinders, acknowledge their blatant shortcomings and take note from other sports.
There are many morals to this story – some based on policy matters, legal and regulations, some on player welfare, mental health. But ultimately, for the dear reader, it is this: football, ladies and lads, is merely entertainment. It is to be enjoyed with both a sense of dissociation and empathy, like with most performance art.
When one becomes invested beyond reason, one is blinkered. And that makes one do daft, insensitive things. Like sending disgraceful death threats to a player and undermining medical reports, depression and head injuries.
Let’s promise ourselves to be more objective even in our most heated moments. And if not, go bang yourself on the head very, very hard and do us all a favour.