Katie Small, board director at insurance broker R K Harrison, on the risks footballers should watch out for
A lot of discussion has been dedicated to discussing the risks of the World Cup: stadia not being finished on time, the threat of riots, dengue fever outbreaks, the chance that England won’t make it out of the group stages… Security issues have attracted a lot of attention, with the least of their worries being the two England fans that blagged their way past armed guards and into the England team’s hotel, armed with camera-phones and determined to take selfies with the players.
Just this morning on the radio, people were discussing whether the pitch for the England vs Italy game in Manaus was fit for purpose. Football, after all, is now a fast game played on perfect pitches – what will that to do to the quality of the match? And the heat? How will that affect the performance of a team from a country who gets very excited when the mercury tips 20?
But what a lot of people miss is that the World Cup is actually pretty risky for the footballers themselves. It’s definitely one of the riskiest activities they undertake in their career, and it’s certainly viewed that way by the insurance industry. Professional footballers generally take out career-ending injury insurance, covering their loss of earnings if they can no longer play. When they go on national duty, their clubs also take out cover, which is often more expensive, to make sure they will be financially reimbursed if anything happens to their players.
Happily, career-ending injuries are very rare. In the last seven years there have only been three, two of which were illness-related – Fabrice Muamba, who retired in 2012 with heart problems and Stiliyan Petrov, who had leukaemia. However, it is telling that the third was Dean Ashton’s ankle injury, received from a heavy tackle while training in England in 2006.
So why is national duty so much more risky for those on the pitch?
Firstly, there are the increased physical demands. The team will be travelling constantly and training more intensively as the manager tries to overcome the fact they rarely play together to put together a winning side. The teams play more matches, more frequently than usual; the winning team plays seven in one month.
At the same time, the footballers will be away from their usual, highly refined training and medical routine. At the top Premier League clubs, managers will meet with medical staff before and after training sessions to assess their fitness. They have state of the art rehabilitation facilities and a black book of contacts not just for the best medical specialists, but for the best specialists in highly specialist areas of medicine. Many injuries that used to take six months to recover from, now take only three.
There’s also a significant psychological factor, both on the part of the manager and the players. Imagine a star striker has a niggling injury. In ordinary circumstances they might say they can’t play for a match or two or their manager might prefer them to lay up so they can mend for the rest of the season. On international duty players will want to impress in training, get their cap if at all possible. The manager only has a few games in which to prove his worth, so he is going to put out his best striker whether or not they’re in peak physical condition, and that striker will almost certainly be desperate to play.
A good analogy is with hire cars. People don’t look after them as well as they do their own because they’ll be giving them back after a short space of time. International managers are in a similar position – they need the best from their squad in a short space of time and have no incentive to look to the long-term.
The third factor is the environmental one, like the challenges presented by the poor pitches and the hot weather. For example, most injuries happen towards the end of matches, when players are tired, and the heat will tire them more quickly. Also, many players will not be used to pitches that are less than perfectly manicured. And looking ahead we have plastic pitches in Russia in 2018 and 40 degree heat in Qatar in 2022… I’ll save them for another column though.
Katie Small is Head of Private Wealth for R K Harrison Insurance Services