The news that Manuel Almunia has retired from the game probably raised few eyebrows given the long successful career that he has had. At aged 37 he was in the twilight of his career and after being released by Watford at the end of last season, many assumed that his body had caught up with him and he could no longer perform at the highest level. But in fact Almunia was days away from signing a contract with Serie A side Cagliari and looking forward to the next chapter in his career. It wasn’t until Almunia finalized terms and started a routine club medical that a problem arose. The Cagliari doctors detected something wrong with Almunia’s heart and sent him for further test to confirm their worst fears. The former Arsenal keeper had been diagnosed with a heart condition known as HCM (or Apical hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) which is a disease of the heart tissue that causes it to thicken and can lead to sudden death.
It’s a shocking revelation that has rocked the player and forced him into earlier than expected retirement. However it’s a condition that cannot be treated lightly with several other players having died from this or similar heart related conditions in recent years. Most will remember the stories of Marc Vivien Foe, Antonio Puerta, Miklos Feher and Phil O’Donnell who all collapsed on the pitch and died. Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba would have joined this list too if it wasn’t for a quick thinking doctor in the stands who noticed the signs and ran to his aid. Muamba collapsed during the FA cup game between Bolton and Tottenham in March 2012 after suffering cardiac arrest. Luckily for the former Arsenal and Birmingham player, consultant cardiologist Dr. Andrew Deaner was at the match watching his team, Spurs when he saw Muamba slump down in the middle of the pitch. After gaining permission from the stewards, he ran onto the pitch and helped the player. Deaner’s actions on the pitch gave Muamba a chance of survival and ultimately saved his life. Today the former player is now studying to become a journalist, with thanks to Dr. Deaner.
All five did not know that they had the condition as many don’t until it’s too late. Before Muamba’s incident, heart screening was not a mandatory part of the routine medical, deemed unnecessary by some and too expensive by others but given the consequences, neither argument holds water. UEFA to date has not enforced a policy of screening, mostly deferring to the local football associations for a ruling for their leagues in an attempt to distance itself from any player deaths. Most leagues let the clubs and their doctors determine the need and given the cost of the screening for each player, smaller sides with lower net revenues are forced to perform the tests. This means that the level of screening across football varies from extensive to nonexistent, putting players at risk. The hearts of professional athletes in particular are worked extremely hard given the amount of exercise and running that they must do day in day out, which places further pressure on the organ. For this reason, most athletes like Alumina diagnosed with this condition are advised against continuing their sport and told to avoid strenuous activities to minimize the risk. It’s a bitter pill to swallow for many but most understand it is the only action they can take to save their own lives. Manuel Alumina knows he is lucky and after having a successful career is now facing up to life as an ex footballer. Whilst not being able to play the sport he loves will be tough, being healthy and spending his later years with his family and friends is more important to him than the beautiful game.