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Ken Early: Don’t make players pawns in sad and bitter Covid culture war

Victor Lindelof breathing issues latest in line of incidents incorrectly linked to vaccines

The ingredients of the scene had an awful familiarity: the medics waved onto the field, a stricken player on his knees, holding his chest, the worried-looking team-mates milling about.

Fortunately Victor Lindelof was able to walk off the Carrow Road pitch and within a few minutes seemed to have made a full recovery. "He doesn't remember how it happened," coach Ralf Rangnick told MUTV after the game. "I suppose he had a collision with another player and couldn't breathe. He had problems to breathe and his heart-rate was higher than normal so we had to replace him. We've had him checked and had some examinations done by the doctor. So far, everything seems to be okay but he still seems a little bit shocked."

A collision, a fright, a problem – thankfully behind us? The times being what they are, the story couldn’t end there. You knew before looking how Lindelof’s collapse was going to be interpreted by the sense-makers and meaning-diviners of social media.

Sure enough, there was a tweet from Trevor Sinclair, scorer of Goal of the Season in 1997, and latterly combining football punditry with vaccine-scepticism: "Nothing to see here #Lindelof". It was obvious that Sinclair's post was a reference to his previously-aired suspicion that the Covid vaccines are causing a spate of collapses among football players.


But what about Sinclair's premise - which you can find echoed by thousands on social media - that these cardiac collapses are becoming more common?

Back in November, Sinclair had been talking to Jim White and Simon Jordan on TalkSport about the collapse of Scotland midfielder John Fleck playing for Sheffield United against Reading. "I think everyone wants to know if he's had the Covid vacc- . . . " was as far as Sinclair got before the stream went dead, TalkSport's producers having apparently hit the dump button. Refusing to be silenced, Sinclair tweeted: "Everyone I speak to about these heart problems suffered by footballers (which worryingly seem to be happening more regularly) are they linked to Covid vaccines or not??"

No, these alleged heart problems are not linked to the vaccines, according to medical and scientific experts - as though the word of such experts matters in convincing the sceptics. Michael Gove's line about the British people having "had enough of experts" sounded like a blunder when it spilled from his lips during a Brexit debate with Sky News' Faisal Islam, but now echoes like a prophecy: no phrase has better captured the spirit of the age. In the specific case of Fleck, he has since been declared fit and available for selection.

But what about Sinclair’s premise – which you can find echoed by thousands on social media - that these cardiac collapses are becoming more common? The claim has been fact-checked by news agencies including AFP and Reuters and found to be false – not that news agency fact-checking can be expected to convince anybody who doesn’t want to be convinced.

We can but try. Far from being a new problem, on-field cardiac arrest was already common enough in football by January 2014 for Fifa to set up the Sudden Death Registry that month to log its incidence worldwide.

A study published last December in the British Journal of Sports Medicine combined information from that Fifa registry with data from media monitoring for the years 2014-18. They found 475 instances of football-related sudden cardiac death across 67 countries, with a further 142 cases where a player suffered a cardiac arrest but survived.

In November, AFP asked the lead author of that study, Dr Florian Egger, to comment on Facebook reports of a surge in cardiac problems among players since the introduction of the Covid vaccines. Referring to the data he and his team had collected, he pointed out that even if the Facebook allegations about the number of incidents this year were to be accepted at face value, and the tally of cases extrapolated to cover the entire year of 2021: "there would still be fewer heart emergencies in football than in the pre-Corona year of 2018. The claim that this dynamic exists cannot be derived from our data or other international registry studies. There are no more deaths among footballers than before the Covid-19 pandemic."

The arbitrariness of a tragedy unforeseen and undeserved creates a feeling of unreality, of incomprehensibility

This year has been unusual for the high profile of the players who have suffered cardiac problems: Christian Eriksen and Sergio Agüero are two of the biggest stars of the last decade in the Premier League. But the claims about the role of the vaccine in such collapses proceed without any regard to the facts. The doctor at Eriksen's club, Inter, announced that the player had not been vaccinated. Wigan did the same last month after the collapse of their striker Charlie Wyke with a cardiac arrest in training caused further fevered speculation.

People who follow the sport can quickly bring to mind the names of many players who suffered in this way before anyone had ever heard of Covid-19. Marc Vivien-Foé, Miklos Feher, Antonio Puerta. Dani Jarque, to whom Andres Iniesta dedicated his World Cup final goal, Cheick Tiote, Davide Astori, Ryan McBride. Players who had not long retired, like Ugo Ehiogu and Justin Edinburgh. The lucky ones, who collapsed but survived: Daley Blind, David Ginola, Clive Clarke, Fabrice Muamba - and others who were diagnosed before suffering a collapse: Ruben de la Red, Nwankwo Kanu.

The tragedies have not been confined to the elite level. In The Irish Times sports department we remember our colleague Carl O’Malley, who died in February 2015, aged just 36, after falling ill playing a football game.

It’s terrifying when an apparently fit and healthy person collapses without warning. The arbitrariness of a tragedy unforeseen and undeserved creates a feeling of unreality, of incomprehensibility. The temptation to believe in a story that seems to make sense of it is understandable. But the victims deserve better than to be turned into weapons in the sad and bitter Covid culture war.