October 10, 2008 / 12:03 AM / 11 years ago

RPT-FEATURE-Soccer-Motor neurone worry hangs over Italian game

(Repeats feature first moved at 0002 GMT)

By Paul Virgo

ROME, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Stefano Borgonovo was guest of honour at Wednesday’s friendly between former clubs Fiorentina and AC Milan, though he was unable to play.

Borgonovo moved Italians last month when he revealed that he was suffering from the most common form of motor neurone disease — Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

The 44-year-old former striker’s announcement, given from a wheelchair through a computer-generated voice after he lost the power of speech, sent a shiver of dread through generations of past and present Italian footballers.

Statistics showing that there are far more cases of ALS among ex-professional footballers in Italy than among the general public have prompted Turin prosecutors to investigate dozens of deaths from the condition.

“The latest evidence shows that there are six times as many ALS deaths among soccer players as for the rest of the population,” prosecuting magistrate Raffaele Guariniello told Sky television.

“We did comparisons with other sports — cyclists, basketball and volleyball players. Not a single case emerged.”

ALS claimed the life of ex-Genoa captain Gianluca Signorini at the age of 42 in 2002.

Known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States after the baseball great it killed in 1941, ALS attacks the motor neurons of the brain and spinal cord, causing swift muscle degeneration.

In the general population there are around 2.5 cases per 100,000 people a year.

“If you look at the statistics for the number of players affected by ALS, there is reason to be worried,” Italy captain and Real Madrid defender Fabio Cannavaro told reporters last month.

POSSIBLE CAUSES

When news of the mysteriously high ALS prevalence in Italian football came to light, many people’s thoughts turned immediately to doping.

Guariniello said this was just one of the possible causes he was looking at, however.

“The hypotheses we are working most on are the use of doping substances, the cumulative trauma of being hit in the legs or heading the ball and exposure to the toxic substances used to maintain pitches,” he said.

The biological mechanisms that cause the disease are only partially understood, there is no cure and sufferers usually die between two and five years after contracting it.

The alarm has shaken the Italian game into action.

Borgonovo’s former Milan team mate Ruud Gullit was among the big names from past and present who played on Wednesday in a match organised to raise money for ALS, with Fiorentina winning 4-1 in front of 30,000 fans.

Former Fiorentina team mate Roberto Baggio was also in attendance at Florence’s Stadio Franchi.

The Italian Football Federation has decided to donate 150,000 euros from the gate receipts of next Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Montenegro in Lecce to fund a new task force of scientists who will investigate the matter.

Such high rates of ALS have not been uncovered among players in other countries, although scientists say this does not necessarily mean the problem is limited to Italian football.

AMERICAN FOOTBALLERS

“There haven’t been any well-controlled studies showing a risk of ALS among players in the USA and the UK, but a number of clusters have been reported,” doctor Paul Wicks, a British motor neurone disease expert, told Reuters.

“I was part of the King’s College London team that did a paper on an apparent cluster of three amateur footballers who played in the same side in southern England at the start of this decade.

“There were also three American footballers who played with the San Francisco 49ers in the 1960s who then developed ALS.”

Wicks said there could be a genetic predisposition to ALS that was brought out by strong exercise, which would explain why the disease had a higher prevalence among military veterans.

He said it was also possible that a gene was widespread among Italian people which made carriers good at soccer but, at the same time, gave them a higher chance of contracting ALS.

“Perhaps there’s a genetic factor which, for example, produces a blend of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle that gives the right stamina and explosive power for football,” explained Wicks, a director of the PatientsLikeMe.com association which contributes to research into ALS.

“But it would not give the endurance needed for cycling or marathon running. The negative side would be an increased risk of ALS.”

Borgonovo certainly does not blame the game he loves.

“I think it’s down to a genetic malformation,” he told Gazzetta dello Sport.

“Leave football alone. If I could go back, I’d put my boots back on and score a 90th-minute goal against Juventus.”

Editing by Clare Fallon

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