By J Hutcherson (Jun 15, 2021) US Soccer Players – On Saturday, UEFA needed to address the immediate aftermath of a medical emergency. Denmark’s Christian Erikson had collapsed on the field with a teammate immediately seeing the severity of the situation. What followed was a life-saving intervention that involved players, medical staff, and the fans with the presence of mind to throw their flags to players to cover the scene as the medics worked. We now know how close the situation came to tragedy. Over an hour and a half later, the game continued.
Reports had UEFA putting the decision to restart the game on the players. Some of the same players who had circled Erikson and the medics, facing away and in noticeable anguish. Again, according to Denmark’s players, their choices were the delay, play the remainder the next morning, or to forfeit. UEFA later clarified that the 48 hours needed between games was at issue. In the aftermath of that 1-0 loss to Finland, Denmark’s players spoke out over what they saw as the ridiculousness of the situation.
Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel’s widely quoted words resonated. “We were put in a position which I personally don’t think we should have been put in,” he said. “It probably required that someone above us had said that it was not the time to make a decision and maybe should wait for the next day.”
Their coach Kasper Hjulmand agreed, telling the media on Tuesday that “Coronavirus allows you to postpone a match for 48 hours. A cardiac arrest obviously does not. That, I think, is wrong. There is learning here. It was not the right decision to continue playing. The boys showed so much strength by going out and playing on. I felt that the players and us close to them where put under that pressure and were given that dilemma. It was a hugely difficult situation to be in. The only real leadership would have been to put the players on a bus and send them home and deal with it after. You don’t necessarily find good leadership in the protocols. Good leadership can sometimes be to lead with compassion.”
In a tournament setting, the games have to fit a template. As Hjulmand said, UEFA accounted for potential coronavirus issues, building time to address games that couldn’t go ahead as scheduled. That they didn’t immediately apply something similar to what happened on Saturday is certainly a critique that needs voicing. So is the idea, no matter how well intended, that players should pick from a set of options in the moment. In practice, both of these assumptions not only failed, they weren’t fair.
Addressing that fully moving forward is the only appropriate response from the governing bodies. It’s a safe assumption that they’re well aware of that, adding in guidelines for how to treat the most unlikely of situations. Again, it’s certainly worth asking why that wasn’t already in place as part of global standards for how to address medical emergencies. In the aftermath of the death of Marc-Vivien Foe, FIFA went to great lengths to make sure that scenario was unlikely to happen again without quick intervention. Prior to the 2018 World Cup, sudden cardiac arrest was a focus for referee training.
What soccer faces now also goes back to Foe’s death at the 2003 Confederations Cup. With Cameroon and France players both questioning the need to play a final for a tournament now overshadowed by tragedy, the game went ahead as scheduled. France won 1-0 and made it clear there was nothing to celebrate apart from the life of Marc-Vivien Foe.
One of his teammates in that 2003 Confederations Cup squad, Eric Djemba Djemba, gave an interview to The Sun in December where he described what happened after beating Colombia in the semifinal.
“But we said we don’t want to play. We couldn’t sleep that night, everyone was crying. How could you go to play football and die? (FIFA president Sepp Blatter) spoke to us and said he understood it was difficult, but added FIFA didn’t know what to do because we had got to the final. Then Marc’s wife came to the hotel, and she said to us we need to play for him, for her and her children. So we went to play and we lost the game 1-0. Thierry Henry scored. But we weren’t in the right frame of mind.”
With the recent push to treat the mental health of professional athletes seriously, what to do should be clear. Player input is important, but not necessarily in the moment and unnecessary if there is a set of rules already in place designed with compassion. That should’ve been the situation in 2003, and it certainly should be the situation now.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Concacaf’s choices for the Nations League and the Gold Cup
- What did we learn from the 2020-21 European soccer season?
- Is the NFL the Premier League’s biggest competitor?
- Infantino asks about salary caps
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