When Jan Vertonghen was helped down the tunnel after bashing heads with Toby Alderweireld during Tottenham Hotspur’s first Champions League match against Ajax, it prompted yet another round of discussion about football’s woefully inadequate concussion protocols in the modern game. The incident left both central defenders prone on the pitch, and opened a cut above Vertonghen’s nose that bled grotesquely. After being looked at by Spurs physios (which met UEFA’s standards for concussion evaluations), Vertonghen re-entered the match, only to take himself off again seconds later. He nearly collapsed from weakness on the sidelines and had to be helped down the tunnel. He was then substituted.
Vertonghen was later determined NOT to have suffered a concussion — the sideline weakness was attributed to apparently swallowing blood from his cut — but the incident left many of those who were watching the match shaken, including UEFA officials. A report in the Mirror states that the Vertonghen injury has prompted new calls at the highest level of UEFA leadership to revamp and improve football’s concussion protocols across global football as soon as 2021.
The new plans involve UEFA working with FIFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB) to allow for special substitutions for players who are suspected to have an on-pitch concussion that will allow for a more extended evaluation, and prevent concussed players from returning to the field of play. The end goal is one single standard for evaluation and substitution of concussed players across all of football, something that doesn’t exist currently with FIFA having different rules from UEFA.
UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said that the Vertonghen incident was what crystalized in him the need for changes.
“After Vertonghen’s situation I was scared that something would happen, because it was clear when he came back that he didn’t feel well. He could die there.
”We will have discussions with FIFA about it to change the laws of the games. Assessment is easier [in 10 minutes]. Now it is crazy. And you can die because of that.
”I don’t see it as a problem. FIFA is also interested in solving this issue. If something were to happen we would regret it forever. You have to do something. And if it helps one out of a million players, you did everything [you could].
”The rule change wouldn’t influence the game, change the game or make it less interesting. Now it [the situation] will move. FIFA is very, very interested in this.”
Introducing “concussion substitutes,” something already implemented in rugby, would be a welcome change to the way football currently handles head injuries. Currently, the present protocols actively encourage swift evaluation of potential concussions in order to get the player back on to the field of play as quickly as possible, something that works to the detriment of players as concussion symptoms sometimes take a while to manifest themselves. Physios are often forced into making snap decisions about whether to keep a player on the pitch or use one of the team’s three substitutions, and you don’t have to look far to find stories about players returning to the field of play while exhibiting symptoms of concussion.
Vertonghen didn’t suffer a concussion against Ajax, but the incident was still extremely scary, and you can easily make the argument that he shouldn’t have been allowed back onto the pitch. Spurs physios received the lions’ share of the criticism at the time, but they were following UEFA concussion protocols, which are now viewed as woefully inadequate. This is a positive development for player safety — the protection of players who have sustained a head injury is incredibly important. Vertonghen’s injury scare was frightening, but it taking place on European football’s biggest stage seems to have scared the right people. Hopefully it will be an agent of true change going forward.