The Concussion Game: FIFA’s Ghost Protocol

An incident in Saturday’s China-Cameroon Women’s World Cup match seems to show that FIFA isn’t walking the walk on a proper concussion protocol. As the clock ticked down to a 1-0 China victory, Chinese midfielder Han Peng went up for a ball against a Cameroonian fullback. They knocked heads.

Han came down hard. She held her head. Some in the stands groaned, as Cameroon needed a goal and the game was in stoppage time, which meant the ref could end the game with two toots of the whistle. But this was for real: her head was bleeding. The stretcher came out. 92nd minute of play, and counting.

Then, I saw one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen in a soccer match. The trainer started to bandage her head and just… kept going.

Han didn’t get on the stretcher. She walked to the sidelines and stood there briefly–even barking orders, as you see here–before coming back onto the field. I’m not positive how long she was out. My game notes say about a minute and a half. Estimates based on Twitter suggest 2-3 minutes. She was on the field when China celebrated their win.

According to China’s state-run media outlet Xinhua, she got six stitches. “I didn’t realize I was bleeding, but I knew I had to continue playing because we had no more susbstitute (sic) option,” she was quoted after the game.

Here’s a translation of what assistant coach Weiwei Chang said post-game, according to Jonathan Tannenwald of

Sound familiar?

It’s not exactly news to say athletes ignore potential concussions. They want to win. So do their coaches and trainers, Hippocratic oath notwithstanding. And professional sports leagues ignore them because the implications would be far-reaching and threatening. That’s the status quo. Fine.

But this case is doubly troubling, because FIFA has recently said it wants to change the status quo.

Last September, well before Blattgate, FIFA’s Medical Committee proposed a new concussion protocol. It was responding to a spate of high-profile concussions, most blatantly the TKO of German midfielder Christoph Kramer in the World Cup final against Argentina (July). Kramer was so loopy he asked the ref if this was in fact the championship match. He told FIFA he doesn’t remember the collision, but that it looks painful. He stayed in the game for about 15 minutes after that.

Earlier in the tournament, Argentina’s Alvaro Pereira took a knee to the dome so hard that he laid there like a dead man. He was on the field a minute later and played the full game.

In September, here’s what the FIFA Medical Committee said it would submit to FIFA’s Executive Committee (then headed by Blatter):

Under the proposal, whenever a suspected incident of concussion occurs, the referee will have the ability to stop the game for three minutes, allowing the relevant team doctor to complete an on-pitch assessment and decide if the player has suspected concussion. The referee will only allow the injured party to continue playing with the authorisation of the team doctor, who will have the final decision.

And that was the last news on it. Sepp must have bigger fish to fry now.

Nevertheless, FIFA had better come around soon, because when a player hits her head so hard she’s bleeding, and the team doctor’s remedy is to tape her head up like an extra in The Mummy, and she’s back on the field in less time than it takes to heat a Hot Pocket, you can’t call your concussion protocol much of a protocol at all. More like a free-for-all.


Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. The 49ers losing, year after year, to Green Bay in the late 1990s. USA Hockey losing to Canada in the gold medal game of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver – in overtime, no less. The San Jose Sharks perennially discovering new depths of failure, such as becoming only the 4th team in history to choke away a 3-0 series lead. But it’s all good. He’s over it. They helped make him the man he is today, and they made him curious about why sports are so engrossing and important to us. They helped him realize that sports are about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

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