London, May 5: "It is a matter of urgency... The time for talking about this is over, we need some action." That is the message from FIFPro vice-president Francis Awaritefe amid growing calls for change to the concussion protocol and treatment of head injuries.
The issue of concussion and head injuries has dominated headlines once again after a sickening incident involving Tottenham defender Jan Vertonghen in the Champions League semi-final first leg against Ajax on Tuesday (April 30).
Vertonghen required extensive treatment after colliding with the back of fellow Belgium defender and Spurs team-mate Toby Alderweireld's head in the first half of the 1-0 loss in London, where he was initially cleared to return following a three-minute medical assessment as per the current concussion protocol.
The 32-year-old, however, had to be helped from the field moments later in worrying scenes on the sidelines. While he was cleared of concussion following days of assessment, Vertonghen has been advised to undertake a "brief period of rehabilitation" before returning to training.
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It is one of many head-related incidents this season amid calls for the introduction of an independent doctor as well as demands for 'temporary concussion substitutions'. Switzerland defender Fabian Schar, Napoli goalkeeper David Ospina, Lyon keeper Anthony Lopes and United Arab Emirates' Fares Juma Al Saadi were cleared to return under the current guidelines.
"The issue of concussion is a very serious issue. It's a health and safety issue, which is related to their work place. In my point of view, I don't think it's been addressed in the proper manner it should be addressed," Awaritefe told Omnisport.
"We've seen the medical data around the long-term risks of concussion and how they can have a deleterious long-term effect for people who suffer concussion when it's not managed properly.
"We're really worried about it because football seems to be a long way behind some of the other sports in terms of protocols and just in terms of the way how seriously they're taking concussion.
"For me, it's a massive issue. I think football at the moment, FIFA and the national associations, are being totally negligent in the way that it deals with concussion. It's utterly negligent and we don't want to wait until a player has a serious injury that it might end their career or worse, we have a player die on the field or soon after because of a concussion issue that wasn't treated properly.
"As a sport, we need to reflect on this and get together with experts to come up with smart and proactive solutions to deal with this really, really serious issue."
Awaritefe – a three-time Australia international – said: "The issue here is that sports administrators, they're starting point is always putting the interests of the sport first, rather than the interests of the athletes and the players who play sport.
"If you don't put those interests first, you'll end up making bad decisions. The health of the player should come first. It's not about whether coaches will cheat or abuse the system by using subs or not using subs, whatever they will do. That's not the point. The health of the player should come first. Until we start to think like that, we will continue to do this.
"When you look at the issue of racism, this is another example of that. Black players are being abused in their work place and the very organisations and institutions whose first duty should be to protect those players are more concerned about what might happen if players walk off the field than they are about the abuse and vilification. The default position is always putting the interest of the sport first, rather than the players. You have to change that thinking. With concussion, if you don't put the health of the players first that's just negligent.
"We don't want to get to a point where we have a tragedy and then we do something. By then, it's too late. We don't want to be reacting to something like this. If that happens, the administrators will be 100 per cent to blame. That's no comfort to the player, who might suffer a serious or permanent injury, or worse, loss of their life. It's no comfort to them or their families."
"The game's administrators aren't taking it seriously at all," the 55-year-old added. "Unions have to start collectively bargaining these types of issues because until you have it in your collective bargaining agreements, FIFA and some national associations won't take this seriously.
"Until the unions start to say 'no, we must have these conditions as part of our work-place agreement', that's not going to happen."