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What Happens to the Game if a Player Dies During the Match?

Football is not renowned for being a particularly dangerous sport. Of course, it is a fast-moving contact one and, inevitably, players will get injured from time to time, sometimes relatively seriously. On very rare occasions, players have also sadly lost their lives while playing football.

Probably the most high-profile instance of a footballer losing their life while in action was when Marc-Vivien Foe unfortunately died while playing for Cameroon on 26th June 2003. There have been a handful of other similar instances over the years too, as well as some well-known close calls (such as Christian Eriksen at Euro 2020, who thankfully survived).

In this article, we won’t dwell on the heartbreaking occasions when players have died, but rather we’ll take a more general look at what happens to the match itself. If a player dies on the pitch, are the players asked to carry on with the game? Or is the match abandoned and replayed at a later date, or something else?

What the Laws of the Game Say

Football Pitch Drawn on Blackboard

Having sifted through the official Laws of the Game as written and published by The FA and The International Football Association Board, there is no specific mention of what should happen if a player dies during a match. But there are various references in the rules to “serious injury” that would be applicable.

For instance, a specific rule on injuries states:

“The safety of the players is of paramount importance and the referee should facilitate the work of the medical personnel, especially in the case of a serious injury and/or an assessment of a head injury. This will include respecting and assisting with agreed assessment/treatment protocols.”

And in terms of the specific action the referee should take in relation to stoppages in general, the general guide of stopping for no longer than “20-25 seconds beyond the point when everyone was ready for play to restart” has an exception for serious injury and/or assessments of head injuries. In this case, any stoppage is left to the discretion of the referee.

Stoppage vs Suspension

If a match is stopped for time that is longer than usual, this would be referred to as a suspension. During a suspension, the referee stops the game with the intention that it will continue at some time in the future (though there is no specific limit set on this time, though it is implied that it would be at least on the same day). During a suspension, the players, coaching staff and officials may in some cases stay on (or next to) the pitch, or in others they may return to their dressing rooms. A suspension may happen for various reasons such as a pitch invasion, floodlight failure or very serious injury.

While a player is receiving treatment for a serious injury, or an injury perceived as being possibly serious, the play will be stopped and, in all likelihood, suspended. This happened while Christian Eriksen was receiving treatment while playing for Denmark against Finland at Euro 2020. On this occasion, Eriksen was taken to hospital, and the other players would only continue the match once Eriksen was awake and they knew he was safe.

But if a player actually dies, would the teams really want to continue after a period of suspension? It seems highly unlikely. In this case, abandonment comes into play.

Abandonment vs Suspension

An abandonment occurs when a match does not resume after suspension, in other words, the referee stops the game before the scheduled number of minutes have been completed. According to the Laws of the Game:

“An abandoned match is replayed unless the competition rules or organisers determine otherwise.”

So, in theory, if a player dies on the pitch (or during the course of a game), the match would almost certainly be abandoned. And hence it would be rescheduled for some future date. If a match is replayed, it would be restarted with the scores at 0-0, irrespective of the position the game was in when it was abandoned.

God forbid, if Eriksen hadn’t survived at the Euros, his teammates would not have completed the game, and hence it would have been abandoned. In reality, had Eriksen not made it, we don’t know what UEFA or the Denmark squad would have done. Perhaps they would have withdrawn from the tournament, or perhaps they would have played on in their teammate’s honour. We’ll never know, thankfully.

Of course, within the abovementioned rule, there is some wriggle room offered by the term, “unless the competition rules or organisers determine otherwise”. This means that if a player dies and a match is abandoned in a tournament like the World Cup or the Euros, it might be very difficult to organise for the match to be replayed. Given the massive logistical jigsaw such a tournament poses, it is likely that if a match was abandoned, it wouldn’t be replayed but instead the tournament organisers would find another way to decide the outcome of the match (for the purposes of determining which side progresses in the tournament or which receives points).

Are There Any Precedents for What Teams Should Do?

Stopwatch Held Against Football Pitch

On the few occasions players have died during games, the general protocol has been the match being abandoned followed by a replay at a future date. But, as mentioned, competition organisers have the power to decide on another course of action.

There have been a couple of occasions when competition organisers have indeed used such powers instead of a match being replayed (although not in relation to a player having died). One notable example came in May 2015 when the EFL Championship match between Blackpool and Huddersfield Town was abandoned due to protests from home fans who invaded the pitch. The match was abandoned after 48 minutes with the sides level at 0-0.

At a Football League Board meeting on 14th May 2015, however, it was decided that the score at the time of the abandonment should stand, instead of the sides having to replay the game. It is likely that the decision was taken because the match in question took place on the final day of the regular season, and hence there wasn’t any time to have a replay.

It probably also helped the Football League Board’s situation that Blackpool were already relegated, and Huddersfield would finish in mid-table irrespective of the result of the match, so there really wasn’t anything riding on it. Had Huddersfield needed three points to get into the play-offs, or Blackpool a win to avoid relegation, things might have been different. As it would have been, we suspect, if the abandoned match had taken place earlier in the season.

Common Sense Prevails when Tragedy Strikes

Shadow of Floodlight on Football Pitch

In summary, if a player dies (or indeed is seriously injured) during a match, the referee will stop and then, most likely, suspend play. In the case of a long period of treatment, the match will be suspended. We are very confident that if a player actually died, the match would be abandoned as players would be very unlikely to be in a psychological state to continue playing what is, after all, just a game.

Whether or not such an abandoned match would subsequently be replayed would then be down to the organisers of the competition in which the match was played, with many different variables coming into play affecting the decision. However, the thoughts and feelings of the players, and the friends and family of the deceased player, would almost certainly be taken into account.