Former star Stefano Borgonovo has motor neurone disease and, as Matthew Barker explains, some wonder if football is to blame

On October 8, a team of Fiorentina veterans played a Milan XI made up of current and former players, in a fund-raising match for Stefano Borgonovo. Now 44, Borgonovo is suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease (MND), a condition that progressively paralyses the body when nerves that connect the brain to the spinal cord, and then to the muscles, die off. There is no known cause, with the majority of victims dying within two to three years of first falling ill.

Borgonovo formed one half of the celebrated “B&B” viola forward line with Roberto Baggio in the late 1980s, before winning a European Cup with the rossoneri in 1990 and earning three international caps. An emotional night at the Artemio Franchi began with Baggio pushing his one-time strike partner out on to the pitch and over towards a packed Curva Fiesole, while the Italian national squad watched from the stands. Borgonovo, sitting by the manager’s bench, communicated to the stadium throughout the game via a computer screen, drawing a huge cheer when referring to the illness as “la stronza” (“the bitch”). 

It was one of those occasions when football feels good about itself, with €350,000 (£275,000) raised and plenty of valuable press coverage generated. In Turin, however, magistrate Rafaele Guariniello was less impressed. Guariniello headed up an investigation into links between the disease and football, finding that 39 players (the majority with a career heyday in the 1980s and 1990s), had died from MND. His report pointed to findings that footballers were nearly eight times more likely to be affected by the disease than members of the general Italian population. “We didn’t get the sort of help in our investigations that we were expecting,” Guariniello told journalists, criticising clubs for their reluctance to provide any assistance to his inquiries. So was there some sort of cover-up? Stories in the Italian press immediately pointed to doping practices in previous decades as a possible cause, with Borgonovo’s ex-Fiorentina team-mate Massimo Orlando quoted admitting: “We abused pharmaceuticals as players; not much, but we certainly did.”

There are high-profile cases elsewhere. Wolfsburg’s Polish midfielder ­Krzysztof Nowak died aged 29 in 2005 and in Turkey Ismail Gokcek and Sedat Backani, both in their mid-40s, are in advanced stages of the disease. In the UK, Ammar Al-Chalabi, professor of neurology and complex disease genetics at King’s College, London, oversaw research into three amateur footballers suffering from MND. Does he believe sport, and football in particular, increases risk? “We reported on a cluster of three footballers; yes, they all played together and got MND. It doesn’t mean that football was the cause, however, because they lived in the same village, drank in the same pubs. They grew up together, they were exposed to the same other things that could have been the cause.

“Yes, it could be that trauma to your legs or the ball getting coated in pesticides and then infecting you through your skin could be causes. But it’s not convincing to me that football alone is the cause of the increase. Even if you doubled your risk, which is quite a big factor in this sort of research, you’re still doubling the risk of a very rare disease. It’s like buying two lottery tickets instead of one; you double your chances of winning but you’re still not going to win.”

In the US, neurology specialist Carmel Armon reviewed the Italian findings and concluded that they were mistaken, finding no link at all between football and the disease. And, as Professor Al-Chalabi points out: “One in 400 of us will die of MND. So it’s quite likely that some footballers will die of the disease.” Borgonovo dismisses the notion of any sort of link, telling Gazzetta dello Sport on the eve of his benefit game: “Leave football alone, it’s nothing to do with it.” While those doping rumours may be clouding the issue, it’s sadly all too clear that a disproportionate number of Italian players have been struck down by this appalling disease. What’s perhaps more tragic is that it could simply be down to the cruellest of coincidences. 

From WSC 262 December 2008

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