High time FIFA amended the stringent substitution rules?

Goal's Aditya Bajaj asks a pertinent question following the 'Kramer' incident as to whether the governing body for football must alter the rules of substitution...

BY ADITYA BAJAJ | Follow @adityabajaj

“Who is Christoph Kramer?”

That’s one question that ran through the minds of most of the fans watching Sunday’s World Cup final between Germany and Brazil, astounded by the surprise last minute inclusion of the little known Bayer Leverkusen defensive midfielder.

By the end of the 31st minute, the 23-year old who played for Borussia Monchengladbach last season on loan in the Bundesliga, had become world famous but for reasons that were tragic to say the least for someone who got a dream first competitive start for Germany at the biggest of all stages in football.

Struck in the head by a nasty collision with Argentine defender Ezequiel Garay in the 19th minute that forced him to the ground, Kramer was cleared to play on. Thirteen minutes later, his World Cup dream was over as he was helped out of the pitch by the ground staff clearly looking confused and astonished.

That was the extent of the blow he had suffered earlier and it wasn’t the first time such an incident had happened in the just concluded World Cup.

In a crucial group stage match against England, Uruguay defender Alvaro Pereira was knocked down motionless on the ground for seconds after a collision with English player Raheem Sterling. Judging by the negative body language of the team doctors who examined him, it seemed like his match was over but with Oscar Tabarez ready to substitute him, the Inter Milan player furiously insisted on carrying on drawing much criticism later.

Similarly, in the second semi-final Argentine midfield Javier Mascherano went down while challenging for a header with Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and like Pereira appeared to have lost consciousness for a while before being stretched out of the field by the ground staff. Much to the relief of the fans and their manager Alejandro Sabella, however, the Barcelona player was back on the pitch albeit with a dazed look on his face.

On the same night, Argentine full back Pablo Zabaleta was also struck in his face, but following some medical treatment was fit to continue. Unlike the other cases, Argentina had obviously used up all their substitutions hence the Manchester City full back had no option but to somehow make it through the last few minutes of an excruciating tie.

Even if Sabella had substitutions would Zabaleta have used that option owing to his personal pain and injury? Of course not, and we have seen that numerous times over the course of the tournament with Pereira and Mascherano perfect examples to the scenario while Kramer tried his best until he just couldn’t continue further.

After all it’s the World Cup, and no player would want his team to suffer by using up a crucial substitution, unless extremely necessary as that could have a game changing effect on the match both for the team and the opposition. These guys are professionals and absolutely love their shirt, so much so that they wouldn’t mind ignoring the drastic consequences of a severe blow to their heads.

It then begs the question of whether it’s high time, FIFA considered changing the upper limit on the number of substitutions allowed per team in competitive games?

Is it time teams are allowed some sort of a “reserve substitute” who may be allowed to come on in case of serious injuries need profound medical attention, mainly head injuries that pose serious threats if not examined properly?

Maybe.

The current rules in a way force the players to continue despite the risks involved with head injuries as has been visibly evident in other sports like rugby and American football. On an average, it takes a doctor close to 10-15 minutes to properly examine such cases to make sure there is no concussion to the brain which could affect its functioning.

The Rugby Union understood the risks, trialing new rules two years ago which would allow players to come off the field for proper examination while a replacement took his place for the time being. Recommendations to remove the player could be made by the referee after consultation with the independent match day doctor or the team doctor. Earlier in such scenarios, players with symptoms of concussion were assessed on the field and would either be allowed to continue or taken off without replacement.

Perhaps it’s high time football draws inspiration from its cousin to implement laws that help protect the players. Such a change will not only put less pressure on the players themselves, but also the managers and more importantly the doctors who today have to run quick fire tests while their team battles it out on the field with a man down. Every minute wasted off the field is an extra minute the team plays with a player less.

Of course there is a possibility such rules could be misused, but which rule isn’t? Players often dive and playact to draw cards for their opponents but does that mean those rules of caution are not important? What’s important is the well being of the footballer himself, who today falls prey to the stringent substitution laws of the game.

The World Cup incidents were just the tip of the iceberg as such serious head collisions happen quite often over the course of a season in club football. The one involving Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Everton’s Romelu Lukaku last November is still fresh in the mind. Coach Andre Villas-Boas even went on to admit later that the Frenchman insisted upon staying on, despite not remembering the accident.

“The lights went out”, is how Pereira described the critical blow to his head, while now world champion Christoph Kramer has admitted to not remembering much from the game post his trauma in the final at the Maracana.

Isn’t that worrying enough already or are we actually waiting for the lights to go out completely or players losing their memories permanently to finally spark a change.