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Painkiller Abuse, Malpractice, and Ivan Klasnic

Football's ugly side and it's disastrous effects

Clive Brunskill

Everyone knows that football is a business. It's a business that millions of people around the world invest their hearts in as well as their money, but it is still a business. It is obvious that the commodity in this market are the people who perform, footballers, but does this excercise in economics go so far that it will ruin the players in their retirement? Former Bolton striker Ivan Klasnic seems to think so.

When the Croatian fox-in-the-box came to the Reebok on a season long loan from Nantes on the deadline of the 2009-10 season, we were all well aware of his previous health troubles. While Klasnic was at Werder Bremen, towards the end of his 7 year stint at the club, he suffered kidney failure in early 2007. After he underwent transplant surgery with a donation from his mother, only for his body to reject it, he went under the knife again, this time with a kidney from his father, a few months later. The second attempt was a success, and Klasnic made a truly incredible comeback, becoming the first player to ever to represent his country at a high level with a kidney transplant.

Thankfully, he has not had any trouble with it since, and is still playing football today, nearly 6 years later, with German club Mainz 05. However, there was a bit more to this story than we realised at the time. Prior to departing from Werder Bremen, Ivan Klasnic filed a lawsuit against two of the club's doctors, Goetz Dimanski and cardiologist Manju Guha, accusing the two of years of "careless treatment", and possibly bringing on the condition by prescribing painkilling medications which can severely damage the kidneys.

This was brought to our attention by the German blog, which published a fascinating interview with a professor who runs the health department at the German Sports University, Ingo Froböse. The entire piece is worth reading, it had some shocking stuff in it, but the gist is that many of the team doctors are in the business of maximising the commodity of the human beings, the footballers.

Of course, the whole thing is very closed door, but from the information that Froböse has been able to collect, 60% of footballers do not recover fully from their injuries. They're pushed back on the field as soon as possible so they can get back to making the club money, and the prescription of painkillers plays a big part in this. The drugs act to suppress the symptoms coming from the body, which can put the players in real danger. Froböse says "Pain is a warning signal and it serves to protect the body from new damages. If I ignore these signals long-term this might develop long-term problems, for example knee- or ankle-damages."

In June of last year, the BBC published an article detailing some of the same issues, this one speaks to the FIF chief medical officer Dr Jiri Dvorak. In it, the shocking numbers that came from the 2010 World Cup said that 39% of players used pain medication before every single match. The article refers to a study released by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which said that 444 of the 736 players involved in the tournament, or 60.3%, took painkillers at some point.

Dr. Dvorak said, "I think we can use the word abuse - because the dimension is just too much. Unfortunately, there is the trend to increase the intake of medication. It is something that we have to really take seriously and ask what is behind it?" It seems pretty obvious what's behind it, pressure on the players to recover quickly, pressure on the doctors to facilitate and ensure this, and pressure on the clubs to make more money.

In his interview, Froböse highlights the consequences this constant use of painkillers can have. In the case of Ivan Klasnic, it may have triggered or contributed to organ failure. For many of the former players Froböse works with, they have become "sports invalids and who get a[sic] therapy now. Because they have to acknowledge: It's not working any longer. I know a lot of players who can't go for a walk with their kids, because their old crocks are busted."

For Klasnic, he is lucky he managed to get back to professional football, although obviously we don't know what awaits him after retirement. The malpractice court case, to our knowledge, is still unresolved, and the extent of the effects that the medications had on the player may never be known. What is clear, is that the long term health of the players is not always the primary concern of team doctors, and this needs to be a larger discussion within football.