Injuries jump gender gap

Following the final round of group matches played on Wednesday, the curtain has now been drawn on the initial stage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™. Ahead of the first two quarter-finals on Saturday, analyses the injury rate at the event and takes a look at physical ailments particular to women’s football.

For this evaluation, it was necessary to turn to an expert in the domain: Dr Celeste Geertsema. She made history at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ by becoming the first-ever female doctor to look after a participating team at the tournament.

The 42-year-old medic was part of New Zealand’s backroom staff during the All Whites’ adventures in the Rainbow Nation, which also happens to be the land of her birth (for more information, please click on the ‘Kiwi doctor breaks new ground’ link on the right).

It was therefore a natural step for FIFA to call on her services for the duration of Germany 2011, but this time around her remit is significantly wider. “My main task here is running post-match drug tests, but I also fulfil a general supervisory role during the tournament, dealing with medical issues in relation to staff, fans and players,” explained Geertsema.

Thankfully, there have been no serious injuries to report since the beginning of the competition, and no player has been forced to curtail her participation for medical reasons. But for Geertsema, there is still work to be done.

“For some time now, we’ve noticed a marked increase in women’s speed, physical strength and technique. And the viewing figures from this World Cup prove that these aspects have made it more appealing to fans. The flip side of this coin is seen in the physio room. While women still get hurt considerably less often than men, data collected since 1999 shows a gradual rise,” she said.

Preventing and pre-empting Although career-ending injuries are principally confined to men’s football, other physical complaints are more prevalent in the sport’s female category. “The most common injuries suffered are those that affect the knee ligaments, because they happen to be more fragile in women than in their male counterparts,” said the South African specialist.

“And there’s no doubt that hormonal factors are also at work. There’s not much we can do about that element, but what we can do is work on the players’ muscle strength and coordination to reduce the risk of injury,” she added.

A partial or total tearing of the cruciate ligaments often signifies an entire season on the sidelines for a player, and is therefore not to be taken lightly. “FIFA has developed programmes aimed specifically at women, as well as carrying out a lot of in-depth research on the subject,” continued Geertsema.

The fruit of this labour has been ploughed into a landmark booklet entitled ‘Health and Fitness for the Female Football Player’, an official guide – distributed by FIFA to key figures throughout the women’s game – detailing injury prevention methods and sustainable health-related advice.

There is one medical area where men and women do find themselves competing on a level playing field: pain. “That aspect is an individual thing, in my opinion, and has no real connection to the sex of the player,” stated Geertsema. “We’ve seen women put up with levels of pain that some men aren’t able to endure. I do think, though, that female footballers pay more attention to their bodies and tend to react more quickly to early warning signs and to fatigue,” she explained. The New Zealand-based physician is not completely ready to sign up to the idea of a combined edition of the world’s greatest sporting event just yet, however: “It’s perhaps more feasible in football than in other sports, because it’s a teamwork-based game that requires dexterity and skill. But there is still a lot of athletic exertion involved, so I would say that for the moment it remains an unlikely prospect.”

Despite this statement, Geertsema concludes the discussion on an upbeat note: “Women still aren’t offered the same opportunities as men, so we can’t undo all that with a magic wand. But, who knows; maybe one day!”