Former professional footballer Wout Holverda developed severe dementia as a result of his football career, specialists from UMC Amsterdam established after his death in December. They think the headers played an important role in this. This is the first time that such a strong link has been established between the sporting career of a Dutch footballer and dementia, NRC reports.
Amsterdam UMC researchers studied Holverda’s brain after he died. They discovered he had CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a condition caused by repeated blows to the head. CTE has been linked to severe dementia, mood swings, and depression in people who played football, contact sports like ice hockey and American football, and combat sports.
Neurologist Jort Vijverberg called the results “unique”. He was able to rule out causes other than Holverda’s sporting career, he told the NRC. “We could see damage to his brain from repeated blows to the head. In this case, Wout Holverda’s football career is the reason for his illness.” Headers – footballers hitting the ball with their heads – are the most apparent cause of head shots, Vijverberg said.
Vijverberg said further study is needed to determine if some players are more susceptible to this type of injury. It is also unknown if other footballers – unknowingly – died of CTE. In the world, very few football players have authorized this autopsy. “We hope that more football players will be willing to donate their brains for research after death. Only then can we answer important questions about header and football safety.”
Wout Holverda played for Sparta Rotterdam between 1978 and 1984, scoring over 50 goals. He played for Oranje once. “We now know that our father died because of the sport he loved the most,” his son Robin told NRC. “It’s tough, but we’re glad it’s clear now. Hopefully this research will eventually help us learn more about the danger of headers.”
Football unions have long assumed that head-butts or collisions couldn’t cause enough damage to develop things like CTE. The NRC has previously reported that sports associations such as UEFA, the European Football Association, have actively slowed brain injury research. In 2020, UEFA implemented a directive to make it harder for young players to make headers in training. The UK has banned headers for children and introduced a maximum limit of 10 per week for professional and amateur footballers of all ages.
The Dutch football association KNVB has not implemented any bans or limitations on headers. Syndicate doctors believe children should be taught to lead technically and carefully with soft bullets so they suffer less damage later in life, according to the newspaper.