The History of Soccer Headgear and the Players Who Wore Them
Mar 4, 2020
No one argues about the importance of wearing helmets in American football and hockey. In soccer, however, the debate as to whether concussion headgear is beneficial rages on.
Nevertheless, there have been several soccer superstars who have worn protective headgear for the world to see. The purpose, of course, was not to make a fashion statement, but to show that soccer protective gear exists to protect players from traumatic brain injury.
History of Protective Headgear in Soccer
Protective headgear is officially allowed by Fifa Rule 4 on Equipment. FIFA first allowed the use of protective headgear (often dubbed “concussion headgear”) on the field in 2003. They gained international attention during the Women’s World Cup of that year and then at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
The adoption of headgear in the soccer world was laced with controversy. There was skepticism from the United States Soccer Federation that soccer headgear had no scientific backing was just being marketed to parents who were fearful of brain injuries.
Researchers themselves were divided on the true cause of brain injuries in soccer. Some studies claimed that heading the ball could lead to concussions and long-term brain impairment, but others suggested the opposite. Ultimately, the science of brain injuries in soccer, at the time, was contradictory.
But acceptance of soccer headgear increased, although governing bodies such as the United States Soccer Federation never really endorsed it. They didn’t promote the helmets, fearing that it would give soccer the image of being a dangerous sport, one that was on par with football.
But if the research didn’t seem sufficient enough to suggest a risk of concussions, life on the pitch did. Take, for example, Petr Cech (more on him below), who suffered a horrific head collision in 2006. After a life-saving surgery and months of recovery, Cech returned to the pitch in 2007 wearing a head guard.
Not only did he draw attention to himself for wearing the helmet, he also fuelled talks about the potential safety benefits these helmets could offer. It’s fair to hail Cech as soccer’s headgear “pioneer”, and his willingness to wear a helmet encouraged other players to follow suit.
Fortunately, hard science caught up to the claims later in the 2010s, when Virginia Tech published its first-ever concussion headgear study. Virginia Tech’s helmet lab tested 22 helmet models including our very own ExoShield head guard, assigning them a rating between two and five. ExoShield came out on top, with an estimated ability to reduce concussion risks by 84% in simulations.
While the Virginia Tech ratings and subsequent studies have shed more light on the potential value of headgear to reduce the risk of brain injuries, much more research needs to be conducted to solidify our understanding. Furthermore, it’s always important to note that there is no silver bullet solution against head injuries, and all we can do is be smart about way we can attempt to reduce risks- ranging from physical preparation to wearing protective equipment.
It’s worth taking a look at some of the great soccer talents who have made appearances wearing concussion headgear and how they’ve benefitted from them. The list below is not exhaustive, and the players portrayed may have worn headgear for different reasons (some for brain injury prevention, other to reduce the risk of traumatic skull damage).
Protective Headgear Example #1 - Wayne Rooney
In 2013, then Manchester United star, Wayne Rooney, became the centre of attention for reasons beyond his dazzling skills. Everyone wanted to know what that strange “headband” he was wearing was. Rooney was wearing Storelli’s ExoShield Head Guards.
Rooney had suffered a kick to the head, leaving with a three-inch gash that forced him to miss three games (and threatened to make him miss three more). We offered Rooney our concussion headgear. He agreed to wear it and he returned to the pitch without missing any further games. Rooney scoring three goals in two games, while wearing our helmet, was the icing on the cake.
Protective Headgear Example #2 - Petr Čech
If you do a Google search for Petr Čech, the fourth result (give or take) in the autofill is “Petr Cech helmet”. When you click on it, you get a host of results including photos and videos of Cech wearing the helmet, along with headlines about the attention it garnered.
In 2006, Čech suffered a life-threatening head injury during a match against FC Reading. He collided with midfielder Stephen Hunt during a shot attempt- Hunt’s knee smashed into Čech’s head. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors quickly compared the injury to a car crash. Cech had to have two pieces of his skull replaced with metal plates.
When he returned three months later, he wore protective headgear following the advice of his doctor. Čech’s emergence with a concussion head guard earned him attention, but more importantly, it continued the conversation about the protective headgear’s ability to reduce head injury risks.
Protective Headgear Example #3 - Sofie Junge Pedersen
Sofie Junge Pedersen, a Danish defensive midfielder on Juventus, is another elite talent who has worn soccer headgear to protect herself against concussions. Pedersen’s exceptional ability was evident at the beginning of her career, and she’s made appearances in the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup, UEFA Women’s Euro 2013 and 2017 events.
However, Pedersen suffered a concussion that left her sidelined for an entire year. It happened in 2016 during a training session at her former club, FC Rosengard. Pedersen described her injury as being “hard mentally” since she couldn’t do anything for four months and had no way of knowing when she’d play again.
Fortunately, Pederson went on to make a full recovery and has worn concussion headgear ever since her return.
Protective Headgear Example #4 - Cristian Chivu
Cristian Chivu, a former Romanian footballer for Inter Milan, also garnered attention for wearing protective headgear back in 2010. His decision to wear the helmet originally made sports headlines because the legality of the headgear was still largely in a grey area.
Like Čech and Rooney, Chivu suffered a serious head injury, a fractured skull, during a Serie A match in January 2010. The fracture required surgery, which he went on to recover from. After having undergone successful rehabilitation, Chivu returned to full training wearing a helmet.
At the time, coach Franco Pasquetti acknowledged that for soccer, the helmet was “one of the first examples I can think of.” He also added, “The helmet is simply protection, but it’s also a psychological and mental aid. The ball, when it hits the cap, will be softer than the elbow of another player.”
Chivu eventually retired at age 33 due to a nagging foot injury. However, wearing concussion headgear became a trademark of his during his final years.
Protective Headgear Example #5 - Tuija Hyyrynen
Tuija Hyyrynen, a Finnish defender who currently plays for Juventus, is one of the leading women in professional soccer who wears concussion headgear. She’s enjoyed a successful career, racking up achievements including appearances at the Women’s Euro tournament (2009) and UEFA Women’s Euro (2013).
Unfortunately, for Hyyrynen she’s had her struggles with concussions, prompting her to wear soccer concussion headgear (our ExoShield headguard). She further explained her use of a head guard to a journalist.
“I have a history of concussion,” Hyyrynen said. “I had had many small concussions over the years, and in 2015 I got a bigger and more serious concussion, which then stopped.” Hyyrynen’s doctor actually recommended that she wear concussion headgear as a protective measure against further brain injury.
When asked if the headgear changed the touch or feel of the ball, Hyyrynen responded by saying:
“Not as such. I’m rather bold with it when it absorbs shock.” One of the most encouraging claims about the headgear that Hyyrynen made was stating that wearing it meant “no more headaches and concussions”.
Protective Headgear Example # 6 - Sean Boyle
A phenomenal goalkeeper for the U.S. Paralympic soccer team, Sean Boyle is an avid user of concussion headgear. He is a unique member of this list because he admits that he wore this protective gear before suffering a head injury. In fact, he wore our very own ExoShield head guard and continues to do so today.
In an interview we conducted with Boyle in December 2016, he described his confidence in the helmet’s ability to affect his performance.
“The way I see it, if you can use protective gear to your advantage mentally, go for it- anything to give you an edge,” he said.
Regarding his continued use of the helmet, he said: “I’m confident I can play without it, but I used it because ‘why not’ and I never want to have a concussion.”
Other Notable Users of Concussion Headgear
The use of concussion headgear isn’t limited to major European leagues. For example, Stanford’s Jaye Boissiere makes frequent appearances wearing our ExoShield headguard. Also, there’s Jean-Max Ferdinand, a Haitian-born footballer who plays for the Milwaukee Wave in the Major Arena Soccer League, who can typically be spotted wearing our ExoShield headguard as well.
From Pros to Joes: Headgear Saves Careers
We're still a long way out from seeing mainstream adoption of protective headgear in soccer. This is the case for both professional and amateur leagues. However, the examples of Wayne Rooney, Petr Čech and Cristian Chivu show that headgear doesn't put any limitations on players' abilities or performance at all. In fact, protective headgear, or concussion headgear as many call it, may prove to have the ability to reduce the risk of further injury to the head, adding years to a soccer player's career.