Soccer Players Are Tough (and That’s a Problem)

Álvaro Pereira came to and kept playing. That’s a bad call from FIFA.

England created a frantic chance in the 61st minute of yesterday’s World Cup loss to Uruguay as the Three Lions tried to claw their way back from a one-nil deficit. When the play ended without a goal and the players retreated down the field, one remained behind, motionless on the ground. ESPN broadcaster Ian Darke immediately called midfielder Álvaro Pereira out for wasting time, but when the camera zoomed in, Peirera didn’t flinch or roll around in the grass. He was unconscious.

A replay showed tiny English forward Raheem Sterling inadvertently kneeing Pereira in the head and a slo-mo replay showed Peirera’s head whipping back like a street sign in a hurricane. When live coverage resume, Pereira was giving the Urguayan doctor the Mutombo finger as he called for sub. Number 6 was back in the game a moment later and Twitter was thick with hot takes like “How tough!” and “How stupid!” We’re firmly on Team Stupid, but Peirera is not to blame. The team doctor, the Uruguayan coach, and FIFA let a player return to the pitch even though it could have killed him.

That sounds dramatic, but it’s not an overstatement. In addition to all the worries about long term effects of concussions and sub-concussive brain blows, there’s a chance a player who sustains two traumatic hits to the head will die. It’s called second impact syndrome and if a concussion is not allowed to heal before another concussion happens, the brain might just turn off. Even if it doesn’t, serious brain damage will almost certainly follow. Pereira may have been a header away from becoming a bench cooler.

Álvaro Pereira didn’t die, but his quotes after the game reveal just how serious this situation was. “After the hit, I only recall that I was unconscious for an instant,” he said. “It was like the lights went out a little bit.” He also apologized for pushing the doctor away and said, “What really matters is that everything is OK. Nothing happened. It was just a scare.”

While everyone’s glad Álvaro is OK, that’s not what really matters. What really matters is that there was nothing stopping Pereira from going back into the game. Relying on him to make the right call is silly. Of course an elite athlete doesn’t want to leave the most prestigious sporting event in the world. That’s why FIFA needs a standard for dealing with cases like this. The world players union said as much itself today, calling for “urgent talks and immediate assurances that FIFA can guarantee the safety of the players” and acknowledging that there are times “when the players also require greater protection against the prospect of making any rash decisions.”

If there is one upside to what was a nasty hit, maybe American soccer haters will finally stop talking about these dudes being soft.

Photos by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images