England's decisive win in the 1966 Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup championships thrilled soccer fans the world over. Not only was it England's first ever World Cup victory, but average attendance records for games set records that wouldn't be broken for another 28 years.
But disturbing new revelations about health problems developed by members of that historic team have cast a dark shadow on the world of professional football. At least three former team members have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease believed to be related to the repeated concussions they sustained during their playing careers. These three members, Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson, are all experiencing early onset dementia with more likely to emerge in the near future.
And that may just be the tip of the iceberg. When former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle died in 2002 of a degenerative brain disease, a verdict of death by industrial injury was given. Family and friends disputed the verdict due to suspicions that the illness may have been caused by the common practice of heading soccer balls during play. Though modern soccer balls are made of plastic, they were considerably heavier in Astle's day due to their leather construction. Despite research evidence showing the potential brain damage caused by this kind of repetitive damage, the Football Association dismissed allegations that Astle's soccer playing was involved. A "Justice for Jeff" campaign was later launched by outraged fans to put pressure on FIFA to acknowledge the dangers faced by professional players and the Astle family publicly referred to the lack of awareness as "sport's silent scandal."
It was only in 2014 that Professor Willy Stewart of Glasgow University examined Jeff Astle's brain and concluded that he had been suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) at the time of his death. Also known as dementia pugilistica, CTE is commonly found in boxers, wrestlers, and rugby players. Based on these findings and the growing publicity surrounding CTE in soccer players, FIFA launched a panel of distinguished experts to review playing rules and prevent further CTE cases. The panel included Willie Stewart as well as Professor Bob Cantu from Boston University, Professor Tony Belli from Birmingham University.
In discussing his work on the panel, Professor Stewart described the progress made to date in an interview with the Daily Mail. "The concussion panel has met once in the past year and drawn up some excellent guidelines for treating concussion but I am not aware of any progress in terms of research. In isolation, the 1966 team could be a statistical anomaly but when you start looking at groups of players from Hearts, Port Vale, Rangers, Bristol Rovers and more, all with significant numbers of former players suffering from dementia in their 50s and 60s, it is time to start asking serious questions."
Dawn Astle, daughter of Jeff Astle, and one of the organizers of the "Justice for Jeff" campaign, worries that FIFA and other sports organizations aren't moving quickly enough. "We’re finding clusters of players from the same teams all suffering from forms of early onset dementia," she said. "We’ve got players from the 1960s and 70s dying from it and probably 90 per cent are centre forwards, who headed the ball a lot. That’s more than coincidence. More than 250 people have been in touch with us, with either a dad or husband who has the condition or who died of degenerative brain disease. All of them believe repeated head injuries sustained playing football caused the illness.’"