Arsene Wenger did the math for us. “You have only one life,” Arsenal’s manager told reporters, “and you have 60 games per year.” He was here before, just weeks before. Midfielder Mathieu Flamini clashed heads with a defender and collapsed on the pitch. That time, Wenger did not hesitate to take Flamini out of the game. This time, the doctors didn’t tell him anything about Wojciech Szczesny. They needed just 82 seconds to check his signs and ask the relevant questions: Where are we right now? Who scored last? Which half is it?
The Arsenal goalkeeper had fallen down, seemingly unconscious, lying on the ground with his hands up. This time, Wenger’s player pushed on – Szczesny made some more saves and looked fine, a victory alone even in a game that Arsenal lost to Manchester United.
Doctors say there is no average: Every case is different. Minutes later, Nemanja Vidic, United’s captain, smacked his head against his own goalkeeper’s thigh. This was worse. As he fell to the ground, Vidic looked glassy-eyed, a vacant look on his face. He wobbled off the field, left for the hospital, and on Monday he was released.
The earliest Vidic can play is November 24. By virtue of his club’s schedule, he will automatically get to sit out at least five days – the minimum for any player concussed in the Premier League. But the waiting could last. We just don’t know how long.
And this was just the latest incident in England, if handled a little better. Only last week, Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham goalkeeper, took a knee to the face. The whiplash was violent: The head snapped back, and he was out. Minutes passed before he got up, and when he was told he had to go off, Lloris looked like a man insulted. The manager, Andre Villas-Boas, liked what he saw, the determination and the fight to stay in the game, and so Lloris remained, and he made a couple more saves.
“The call always belongs to me,” said Villas-Boas. He wasn’t immediately given signs from the doctors that indicted Lloris could continue, and yet he did. Villas-Boas didn’t even heed the weak rules already in place: That a player knocked unconscious should not play that same day.
It seems like an epidemic. Concussions make up 11% of injuries in football, or at least that’s the finding in last year’s British Journal of Sports Medicine. An average of one player per squad takes a hit to the head every month. It’s happening a lot more at the highest level, and more than 50% of clubs in England don’t follow the guidelines. They are talking about it, at meetings between FIFA, the International Ice Hockey Federation, the International Olympic Committee and the NFL. But are they doing enough?