Midfield General

Soccer's Biggest Headache

Why isn't anyone at the World Cup talking about concussions?

Here's what we know about Clint Dempsey's night during the dramatic 2-1 win by the United States over Ghana: He scored the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history, just 29 seconds in. Then, with about ten minutes to go in the first half, he took a wayward shin to the face that looked as though it could have broken his nose. Here's what we don't know: Was Clint Dempsey concussed?

Dempsey acknowledged afterwards that he couldn't really breathe through his nose. We don't know if he was tested for a concussion during the brief time he spent on the sideline after the injury. Cameras caught him telling the bench the same thing during the course of the game. But, with Jozy Altidore already out of the game through the United States with a hamstring injury, Dempsey soldiered on and played the entire exciting match. Neither during the broadcast nor afterwards were any issues related to his injury raised or questions asked.

We don't know what happened to the American captain because, quite frankly, soccer doesn't really care about concussions. In a sport where head-to-head collisions are frequent, it is not uncommon for players to return to the field of play after taking a blow to the head and even losing consciousness. It happened during last year's Premier League season to Belgium's Romelu Lukaku and to France's Hugo Lloris, to pick just two stars who also happen to be playing this month.

In recent years, the major flashpoint for concussions has been the National Football League, where for years there was what we know today to be an inadequate concussion policy. Thanks in part to a major lawsuit by retired players, the NFL has been dragged kicking in screaming into developing a policy to better police head injuries and prevent teams and players from rushing recovery time in an effort to get back out onto the field.

Does soccer need such a procedure? Again, we don't know. But the anecdotes are starting to pile up. There's the first incidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to be found in a former soccer player. While CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed posthumously -- and has been in an increasing number of former NFL players -- a number of the living have also been diagnosed with signs of the disease. Then there's former U.S. Women's National Team goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who underwent surgery to relieve migraines stemming from concussions. Or the recent FIFPro study showing that among retired players "mental illness seems to occur among former professional footballers more often than in current players and more often than in other populations. Consequently, mental illness among former professional footballers cannot be underestimated and should be a subject of interest for all stakeholders in football." There's the case of Eddie Johnson (the British one, not the American one), who is suing the Portland Timbers over allegedly allowing him to practice with concussion-like symptoms. And there's a study on the disturbingly high number concussions in girls' youth soccer. The list goes on.

Anecdotes are not proof of a systemic problem. Proof requires research, medical studies, and documentation, and all of those things require money. But in the face of increasingly frequent anecdotes it seems far past time that the soccer world began looking for proof in earnest, rather than just continuing to ignore the existence of the problem. Right now nobody's looked for proof. Will the same lack of proof be there after people start?

Not everybody has turned a blind eye to the issue. Former Major League Soccer star Taylor Twellman, whose career was cut short in 2010 by head injuries, has founded the ThinkTaylor Foundation. The group's mission statement is to "create social change in the world of Traumatic Brain Injuries, by generating increased awareness, recognition and education." Twellman was soccer's representative at President Barack Obama's recent concussion summit. It must be incredibly lonely work, and Twellman often seems to be the only public voice in soccer remotely concerned with players' long-term mental health.

So while Clint Dempsey was being tended to on the sideline with one of the biggest American audiences in history watching, perhaps it wasn't surprising that the analyst calling the game didn't even briefly address the issue. Except that the analyst was Taylor Twellman. That's not to pick on Twellman (or at least not to pick on Twellman alone), but it does show just how long the road to dealing with brain injuries in soccer is. Twellman has certainly started the ball rolling. It remains to be seen if there's anyone willing to keep kicking it -- or heading it -- along.

Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Sex, Samba, Soccer, and... Sustainability?

Brand Brazil can win this World Cup even if Team Brazil doesn't.

No nation on the planet has an identity and global image so tied to its national soccer team as Brazil. Entire universes of content are dedicated to the Seleção, its style, and its stars who, like rappers and the odd celebrity, are known globally by one name. It's rarified air.

Against this backdrop, most of the early coverage of the 2014 World Cup has taken the almost predictable tone of a high-stakes crisis -- "everything is on the line" or "Brazil's audition for first tier status" sort of thing. Failure as hosts (as opposed to just on the pitch) could be disastrous, and not only for Brazil's self image. It would linger for decades, warding off would-be tourists, foreign investors and partners. It would compound the trauma, seared into the national memory, of its meltdown in the 1950 final on home turf. And let's face it, almost everyone within reach of television pays attention to the World Cup. With 3.2 billion viewers and 770 billion minutes of attention -- hey, no pressure.

The pressure for success of the World Cup is still more intense for Brand Brazil because Brazil has become the default team of the global south, punching well above its marketing weight and projecting out well beyond the reach of the nation's diplomatic, economic, or historical footprint. Its canary camisa can be spotted in the most unlikely parts of the world, even where football leagues -- or indeed any organized sports -- are scarcely established. With many American icons discarded in recent years, the trappings of Brazilian football have become a coda for global belonging, post-racialism, unrepressed sexuality and success against former colonizers by bettering them with homegrown style. The world is proud of Brazil and wants a piece of it, as shown by the countless billions spent by sponsors, advertisers, broadcasters and merchandisers around the world. 

Brazil's prize for getting its mojo back is considerable, not just as a fillip to kick-start its economic recovery, but also as a chance for a long-term stimulant to foreign investment, flows of people, and global markets' acceptance of Brazilian products and ideas. A successful World Cup, despite the protests, would affirm Brazil's already attractive attributes (the sex, samba and soccer part) and confirm other emergent stories of inclusiveness, diversity, democracy, resilience, and sustainability.

But at home in Brazil, it's an understandably complex proposition. There's the perception of corruption in the global game, the vertiginous and alienating sums of money involved, and the questionable wisdom and efficacy of the $11.3 billion spent on stadiums, infrastructure, and other costs -- all while the middle class simmers from disappointment of unfulfilled expectations. A Pew poll where 61 percent opposed hosting the tournament could easily have been a proxy for the 71 percent cheesed off with Dilma Rousseff's presidency and government in general. But four years after posting 7.5 percent growth and now flirting with recession, you can't blame Brazilians for not being in any mood to dress up for guests.

And people around the world will give them a good, long look even without their Carnaval makeup. They expect a show selling the allure of sex, samba, and world-beating futebol, but they are also prepared to look at the diverse and contested texture of the country beyond these mid-20th-century tropes. For those outside looking at Brand Brazil in recent years, the complex struggles towards upward mobility in the favelas and controversy around pacificação are only somewhat offset by newly recognizable claims of sustainability and inclusiveness in Brazilian products as diverse as Itaú banking, Natura cosmetics, and Embraer airplanes. Meanwhile, global investors are looking for a signal of competence. They don't expect Zurich or Hong Kong levels of efficiency, but they do look for signs of mature, consistent, and authentic responses to challenges. 

Brazilian authorities at all levels have an opportunity to turn the World Cup into a teaching experience by the way they defuse protests and authentically fess up to the underlying concerns, both those of the protesters on the streets and the ones simmering quietly in their homes. To pass the test, they can't retreat behind the mask of perfection. Brazil is messy and imperfect. It should go with it and embrace its improvisational brilliance.

Diptendu Dutta / AFP / Getty Images