Italian MEP Salvatore Iacolino (European People's Party), together with other MEPs, is proposing to channel EU funds to study the causes of ALS, a fatal neuro-degenerative disease which has affected a number of football players in the United States, the UK and especially Italy, where around 50 cases have been recorded.
With the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty earlier this year, the European Union acquired new powers in the field of sport and health. The treaty explicitly spells out that action shall be aimed at developing a European dimension in sport by protecting "the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen, especially the youngest sportsmen and sportswomen".
Database of drugs taken by footballers
To help find out more about obscure diseases like ALS, Iacolino called for the establishment of a database of the drugs taken and the incidents experienced by football players during their careers.
The initiative, presented in the form of an amendment to the EU's draft budget for 2011, comes after the European Parliament issued the Commission with a number of requests to investigate the peculiarly high number of cases of ALS among football professionals.
The football world has seen the number of patients affected by the disease grow at a rate that is seven or eight times higher than the average, according to investigations led by the Turin Prosecutor's Office, said MEP Aldo Patriciello (European People's Party) in a written question to Health Commissioner John Dalli.
The Prosecutor's Office determined that among footballers, there have been as many as 43 cases of ALS out of 30,000 players taken into consideration. This is equivalent to 143 cases per 100,000 footballers, a statistic which is nearly 24 times higher than for the general population, the MEP added.
High number of Italian cases
Cases of the disease are particularly numerous among football players from certain Italian teams, including Fiorentina and Genoa. Last week, the press announced a possible new case involving a famous Fiorentina player from the 1970s, Giancarlo Galdiolo. Many of his former team-mates are now dead due to unclear health complications.
The most famous case is that of former Fiorentina star Stefano Borgonovo, who reportedly has been suffering from ALS since 2008.
Doping, abuse of football-related drugs, prolonged contact with deadly herbicides or pesticides used on football fields and repeated trauma to the face and limbs are among the possible causes of the disease cited most frequently by researchers, but not much can be ascertained due to a lack of adequate data.
A recent study conducted in the US suggests that the disease affecting sportsmen might not be ALS, but something else instead.
Collecting data on the use of drugs is a controversial issue in the sports world and raises privacy issues. However, the lack of reliable information ensures that ALS and other sports-related diseases will continue to cast their deadly shadow.
Commission aware of concerns
In another written question to the Commission, Italian MEP Iva Zanicchi (European People's Party) suggested that ALS should be regarded as a genuine occupational disease among footballers. He also asked whether the Commission intends to fund a scientific and medical study into the disease, given the ever-increasing number of cases.
EU Health Commissioner John Dalli acknowledged that the Commission is aware of the concerns related to the disease and of the potential risk factors increasing its prevalence among certain population groups, including football players.
The Commission is already actively addressing ALS via its activities on rare diseases, he added. However, in May 2010 he noted that, unfortunately, not a single request for funding ALS projects had been submitted to the Commission.
The proposal presented by MEP Iacolino is expected to address the lack of such an initiative. Meanwhile, when questioned by EurActiv, Dalli's press service did not explain how the Commission intends to react to the lawmakers' proposals.
Unless negotiations between the EU institutions prove to be overly controversial, the EU's 2011 budget is expected to be approved by the end of the year. The current draft amounts to €142.6 billion and was proposed by the Commission in April.