A child heading a football

The perils of regularly heading a football have been discussed in the media and throughout the game for many years. In recent years, an Alan Shearer documentary and details of Jeff Astle’s dementia diagnosis have intensified the debate. 

Very few people are calling for an outright ban on heading, as it’s an integral part of the game. All sports have some form of risk involved. That’s not what the debate is about. Instead, the biggest debates centre on children and training. 

Children in particular may be at risk of long-term neurological problems if they’re heading the ball too young and too often. 

US Soccer implemented an outright ban on under-11s heading the ball – both in training and competitive matches. Children’s heads are disproportionately large compared to their bodies. The force of a header may be too much for the surrounding muscles to cope with, even when the lightest footballs are being used. 

One study revealed that the force of heading back a goal kick was similar to that delivered by a punch in boxing. This kind of comparison puts everything into perspective, which is why news of the FA’s ban coming into full force this year is being welcomed by many within the game. 

The new rule applies to under-11 games and below, and it will apply to all league, cup and affiliated school matches. This latest development comes a few years after the FA’s ban on headers in training sessions for children aged 12 and under. 

This new approach follows a two-season trial by the International Football Association Board (Ifab). From the 2024-25 season, the rule will apply to all under-seven to under-nine matches. It will then expand to include under-10 matches from the 2025-26 season. And finally, under-11 matches will be subject to the rule change the following season.

The FA commissioned research last year, which found that former professional footballers are almost three-and-a-half times more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than the general population. As a result, the FA has decided to take action to protect young players.

When a player deliberately heads the ball, an indirect free-kick will be awarded to the opposing team. If this occurs inside the penalty area, the free-kick will be taken from the nearest point on the penalty area sideline.

Approximately 16,000 teams and 107,000 players participated in the Ifab trial launched in 2022. An FA Spokesperson said: "Our aim is to also create more technical opportunities for players with the ball at their feet, allow for more effective playing time, and reduce the amount of time the ball is in the air during a match."

In 2021, it was recommended that professional footballers in England should be limited to 10 "higher force headers" per week in training to reduce the risk of brain injuries.

Why Is This Happening?

There is now clear evidence that repeated heading of even the lightest footballs in the game has the potential to cause several chronic brain-related conditions. 

Changes in Blood Patterns in the Brain

Repeated heading and accidental head impacts can interfere with the brain's signalling pathways, altering blood patterns in the brain.

Increased Risk of Dementia

Concerns have grown that heading a football may increase the risk of developing dementia. Studies have found former footballers are more likely to be diagnosed with dementia than the general population.

Concussions and Head Injuries

Although concussions account for a small percentage of football injuries, repetitive heading can contribute to long-term brain damage and cognitive decline.

Immediate Brain Function Alterations

Even brief sessions of heading can have immediate impacts on brain function and the way the brain communicates with muscles.

Elevated Dementia-Related Proteins

Studies have shown elevated levels of proteins associated with dementia in footballers who frequently head the ball, indicating potential long-term brain health issues.

What the FA Is Saying

Following years of research and trials, the FA is now getting tough on heading. The following changes apply from the start of the 2024/2025 season: 

Deliberate Heading Restart

Deliberate heading of the ball is now considered an offence punishable by an indirect free kick. The indirect free kick will be taken from the spot where the ball was deliberately headed, with one exception:

If a player deliberately heads the ball within their own penalty area, the game will be stopped by the referee and restarted with an indirect free kick for the opposing team from the nearest point on the sideline of the penalty area where the offence occurred.

Touchline Restart

When the ball completely crosses the touchline, either on the ground or in the air, a pass-in or dribble-in is awarded instead of a throw-in.

The player taking the pass-in or dribble-in may touch the ball again before another player makes contact.

Delivery Rules

The ball must be stationary on the touchline at the point where it left the pitch, and only the player taking the pass-in or dribble-in may be off the pitch.

Opponents must stand at least five yards away from the point on the touchline where the pass-in or dribble-in is taken.

A goal cannot be scored directly from a pass-in. The ball is considered in play once it is kicked and clearly moves.

Sanctions for Deliberate Heading

Starting from the 2024-25 season, deliberate heading in a match will not immediately result in disciplinary sanctions unless it is deemed a persistent offence, which could then lead to a caution.