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Study of footballers’ brains highlights dementia concerns

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LONDON (AP) The degenerative damage potentially caused by repeated blows to the head in soccer has been highlighted by a rare study of brains of a small number of retired players who developed dementia.

Fourteen former players were part of the research that began around 40 years ago and six brains, which underwent post-mortem examinations, had signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Four brains were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) pathology, a possible consequence of repeated impacts to the brain, including heading the ball and concussion injuries from head-to-head collisions. A previous study of 268 brains from the general population in Britain found a far lower CTE detection rate of 12 percent.

[ MORE: Clattenburg leaves England ]

The small sample size of former footballers prevented researchers from University College London and Britain’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery from drawing any conclusions about the dangers posed by playing soccer as they released their research.

But researchers hope the findings provide the impetus for more substantial studies in conjunction with soccer authorities. The researchers require current or retired players to be willing to take part of investigations that could take decades to produce conclusions.

“Our findings show there is a potential link between repetitive head impacts from playing football and the later development of CTE,” lead author Dr. Helen Ling of the UCL Institute of Neurology told The Associated Press.

“This will support the need for larger scale studies of a larger number of footballers who need to be followed long term, looking at various aspects in terms of their mental functions, imaging of the brain and also markers that might identify neurological damage.”

England’s Football Association said it is committed to “independent, robust and thorough” research, which it is jointly funding with the players’ union. The Alzheimer’s Society maintained that the latest “results do not provide proof that heading a football, or sustaining a head injury by any other means during the sport, is linked to developing dementia.”

“Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia and it’s important to ensure that people playing any kind of sport are able to do so safely,” Dr. James Pickett, research head at the Alzheimer’s Society, said.

Concerns have grown in Britain about the impact of head injuries after campaigning by the family of former England striker Jeff Astle, whose death at age 59 in 2002 was attributed to repeatedly heading heavy, leather balls.

Astle’s daughter, Dawn, is urging “current footballers or families of footballers to pledge the brain” for medical research.

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“If we hadn’t donated dad’s brain, we wouldn’t know what we know now – we wouldn’t know what had killed him,” Dawn Astle said. “It’s too late for dad. The research is so important for current players and for future players. That’s why we need it.

“I think that’s what is so very frustrating – the fact that it’s nearly 15 years since my dad died. And the fact that nothing from any footballing authorities has been done. It is really indefensible and disgraceful.”

At least four members of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad have developed dementia or memory loss.

In the United States, there has been a $1 billion settlement between the NFL and thousands of its former American football players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions. In 2015, the U.S. Soccer Federation recommended a ban on headers for players 10 and under in a bid to address concerns about the impact of head injuries.

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The British soccer research was instigated by consultant psychiatrist Dr. Don Williams, who started to monitor former players who were diagnosed with dementia from 1980. From Swansea in south Wales, Williams monitored the retired players and collected data on their playing and concussion history.

“In 1980 the son of a man with advanced dementia asked me if his father’s condition had been caused by heading the ball for many years as a powerful center half,” Williams said. “As the brain is a very fragile organ, well protected within the skull, this was a constructive suggestion.

“As a result I looked out for men with dementia and a significant history of playing soccer, followed them up and where possible arranged for post-mortem studies to be carried out.”

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Manuel Pellegrini takes the reins at West Ham United

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West Ham United was said to be chasing Rafa Benitez, and instead got a manager with more recent big time success.

Manuel Pellegrini is the new boss at West Ham, returning to the league which saw him guide Manchester City to a Premier League title and two League Cups.

[ MORE: Man Utd after pair of mids ]

The 64-year-old Chilean is well-traveled, and most recently managed Hebei China Fortune. He was released from his contract with the Chinese Super League side last week.

Pellegrini has also led Villarreal, Real Madrid, and Malaga since arriving from South America in 2004.

From WHUFC.com:

“I think that West Ham had a difficult season last season and I hope that next season we are going to play football that will delight the fans. I always play attacking football and we must try to reach important targets in the season.

“Every time you have a meeting you have feelings about whether it was a good meeting or a bad meeting and I had the meeting with him, just talking about football and talking about West Ham.  We agreed on a lot of things he wants for this Club in the way I think a football club must be managed, so we have a lot of common ideas.”

Pellegrini is missing more than a few elements to play the way he’d like to play, and his arrival could spell the end for long-time players like Mark Noble. It could also be a boon for Pablo Zabaleta as the former Man City pair is reunited in London.

West Ham has spent freely in recent years, and Pellegrini’s status could help it land a breed of player unavailable to Sam Allardyce, Slaven Bilic, and David Moyes.

Transfer rumors: Man Utd after pair of midfielders; Liverpool eyes Lascelles

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The transfer rumors continue as players hope to have their futures sorted ahead of next month’s World Cup.

Manchester United is being linked with a pair of big money midfielders.

[ MORE: Brighton nabs World Cup defender ]

Anderson Talisca, 24, could be leaving Besiktas to join United following a $47 million offer, according to Metro. His 14 goals were fourth in the Turkish Super Lig and his seven assists tied for the team lead. He scored four more times in eight UEFA Champions League matches.

And then there’s highly-sought box-to-box midfielder Jean Michael Seri of Nice, linked with United as well as Manchester City. Club president Jean-Pierre Rivere hinted that the 26-year-old would certainly be headed somewhere this offseason.

Mika Seri is … a very good player who has brought a lot to the club and can legitimately have that desire to go and play abroad.”

— Liverpool could really strengthen its center back situation by buying captain Jamaal Lascelles from Newcastle United, though the hinted fee of $19 million seems low for an integral part of the Magpies’ back line (especially given that English players usually net higher fees on account of being English).

And Lascelles has said Newcastle “is the right club for me at the right time. We have a huge fanbase, an amazing manager, and this club is massive. It has so much history.”

The Chronicle also said Liverpool is also looking at Burnley star center back James Tarkowski, and that Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez has his eye on 19-year-old Sevilla mid Alejandro Viedma.

— A wild rumor out of Diario Gol says Alvaro Morata is set to fight for his starting role at Chelsea and is encouraging Real Madrid buddy Marco Asensio to join him at Stamford Bridge. The report says Asensio would be an important part of any Chelsea sale of Eden Hazard.

— Cardiff City is said to be signing Hamburg striker Sven Schipplock when his Hamburg contract expires in June. He did not score for HSV last season.

Brighton adds Nigerian World Cup defender from Mainz

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Brighton and Hove Albion has added some depth to their center back pairing of Lewis Dunk and Shane Duffy.

Leon Balogun has arrived from Mainz, the 28-year-old Nigerian heading to the World Cup and then hitting the Amex Stadium on a free transfer.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Mainz avoided relegation by three points this season, and Balogun played in 14 matches. He had been with the Bundesliga outfit since 2015, and has 16 caps.

Balogun has also spent time at left and right back.

Ezequiel Schelotto just finished his first season as a Brighton right back, playing 28 times, but also moved up the right side. Bruno played plenty there as well, but is 37 years old.

Gaetan Bong and Markus Suttner split time at left back. All four of the players will be with the Gulls next season.

Brighton already had a top-half defense in terms of goals allowed. This should only help that.

Xabi Alonso: Liverpool-Real to be “such a special game”

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Xabi Alonso is part of a unique brand of footballer to have played with both Liverpool and Real Madrid.

The retired 36-year-old spent five seasons with each team, winning a UEFA Champions League with both, and now will watch his alma maters tangle for a UCL crown on Saturday.

[ MORE: Zidane praises Ronaldo ]

Alonso said he’s just rooting for “an unbelievable game to watch,” and seems like he’ll be happy either way.

“I have feelings for both clubs. I was lucky enough to win this trophy with both clubs so for me it’s difficult to pick one and I will be happy whatever happens, that’s for sure. For Liverpool, for Madrid [they are in] different circumstances, but it’s such a special game.”

The Spanish legend also seemed a bit torn as to whether Real’s experience or Liverpool’s newbie excitement could tilt the scales:

“For the Real Madrid guys, it’s the opposite. They have played so many finals in the last few years, so they can manage the situation better. Later it’s just 90 minutes for both sides, whatever happens. But the build-up is different.

“For sure it’s good to have that experience. But it’s good as well to have that excitement, that hunger, but you need to control as well the over-relaxation and the over-motivation.

“You need to find the right point of activation for the game. That’s not difficult because you know what it means to play in a Champions League final and you don’t have many chances during your whole career, and that’s one of the key psychological sides of this game. And the emotional side is almost as good as the football side.”

Maybe it’s simply playing both sides of the fence, and there’s no shame in that, but it does seem a hard match to choose. Both have been wildly inconsistent in league play as well as the group stage, but have been quite good in the knockout rounds.

It’s hard to pick against Real, but that’s why they play the games.