Former SBS football presenter and founder of Heartbeat of Football (HOF) Andy Paschalidis has underlined the need for having life-saving defibrillators at all football grounds, after two amateur footballers in Sydney both recently survived heart attacks. An under-18 player from Hakoah FC and an over 35s player from St Ives FC both escaped death thanks to the quick thinking of those close by who used the emergency devices.

In 2014, Paschalidis witnessed his Forest Rangers teammate Matt Richardson die from a heart attack. That incident was part of a worrying trend that saw 12 footballers in NSW die from cardiac-related events in the space of two years. So Paschalidis decided he had had enough and in early 2016, Heartbeat of Football was born. The foundation’s mission is to not only have defibrillators installed at all sporting fields around the country, but also to promote healthy hearts via player education and minimising health risks.

According to the Red Cross, more than 30,000 Australians suffer from sudden cardiac arrest every year, of which only five per cent survive. In the event of a player having a heart attack, CPR can give a person a two to five per cent chance of surviving a cardiac event, while a defibrillator can increase the survival chances to up to 70 per cent. With amateur football leagues about to kick off, Paschalidis is imploring footballers around the country to be vigilant about their health.

“Yes, let’s get defibs out there at sporting grounds, but why not ask questions of ourselves,” he said. “Are we healthy? Have we had any medical tests? Have we had any blood tests? Have we looked at what’s happening with our lifestyle? I’m just relieved we aren’t talking in early February about two people who have died in pre-season before proper competition starts.”

In attempting to educate amateur footballers about heart health, HOF had a medical tent placed at a local sport ground to provide health and fitness advice, blood pressure and health checks and assist with CPR training. Paschalidis hopes the tents will be seen at sporting grounds throughout the state.

“Ideally for me we would like to get the medical tents out into grassroots football in collaboration with Football NSW to send the message that heart health awareness is pivotal and critical,” he says. “We tested 64 players and we found some issues with a handful of those players. No doubt they are getting some further checks. But at the very, very least, what it does create is an awareness.”

On June 7, 2014, only two days after Paschalidis’ teammate’s sudden death, 45-year-old John Annas, who was playing for Belmore Eagles, also collapsed on the field and died. He too had suffered a cardiac arrest. Former Socceroo and Sydney Olympic star Peter Katholos witnessed the event and is a passionate exponent of the work HOF is involved in.

“He was my teammate and it had happened right in front of my eyes, it was four or five metres away and I just couldn’t believe it,” he said. “If there was a defibrillator it could have saved his life. Like the stats say, in 70 per cent of cases it would save people’s lives. So if there was one available for him he could be alive today. If you’re in politics or you’re in football federations and making decisions, money should be allocated for something like that and this is a great cause, saving people’s lives, because that’s what it is all about.”

In September 2015, the Victorian state government announced it would be rolling out 1,000 defibrillators to sporting clubs, and Paschalidis is hoping other governments follow its lead.

“When the Labor Party came into office in Victoria it pledged $4 million for defibs to go out to all sporting clubs and that is commendable,” he said. “What I do want to stress, and what I need now is the politicians of Australia, the people who can make decisions, to step up. It’s close to home for so many of them. This is an issue where it doesn’t matter what sport you play, it will affect you. It’s not just football, it’s happening with netball, and rugby league and rugby union.
In January this year, Football Federation Australia (FFA) increased the number of defibrillators to all A-League, W-League and National Youth League teams. It also provided seven match official training centre locations across Australia with a defibrillator. This means elite level referees from FFA’s appointed national panel have access to one during training sessions. Paschalidis lauded the governing body for its actions and singled out the head of the A-League for his backing.

“Greg O’Rourke is an unbelievable supporter of ours and when the time is right we’d like to bring him on board as one of our ambassadors,” he says. “It’s commendable because it’s happened quickly, it wasn’t one of those scenarios where they sat back and had meetings. FFA knows that deep down it can show leadership like this and there is a flow-on effect.”

Since Paschalidis started HOF, the Canterbury and St George associations in NSW have rolled out defibrillators at all their grounds, while the ZAPSTAND − a public defibrillator that is monitored 24/7 − was installed at the childhood club of Socceroo Tim Cahill, who helped unveil the device at Mackey Park, the home of the Marrickville Devils. Since the life-saving devices have been installed, many amateur footballer’s lives have been saved, but Paschalidis refuses to accept any praise.

“Firstly, Heartbeat of Football doesn’t want to take credit for anything,” he said. “Some people close to me feel that is a bit selfish because they seem to think that I’m the driving force. I’m not the driving force, there are a few different people out there and other charities are trying to do something similar. I’m just fortunate that my profile and background allows me to reach the broader football area and beyond.
“If we can help, make change and help create awareness and push the politicians it’s all to the benefit of the next generation, and that is my principal concern.”

On 17 February, Heartbeat of Football will be celebrating Women in Sport by hosting its fifth fundraising event at Canterbury Park Racecourse in Sydney. Greek Australian footballer Sarah Polias as well as rugby union, netball, cycling and swimming stars will be special guests at the event. Polias, who has played for the Matildas and is captain of Sydney FC’s W-League team, says she had no hesitation in being involved with Paschalidis and his mission.

“He’s a champion of our game and he gets behind a lot of really good causes,” said Polias. “So when I was asked to be part of it I didn’t have to think twice really. I know they’ve installed a lot of defibrillators around the grounds and at local parks and it can hit anyone at any time. It’s quite tragic hearing stories about what’s happened to people playing the game they love. He’s raised an awareness of that in order to prevent tragedies like that happening from now on. It’s a great thing he is doing among all the other things that he had done, and I can’t wait to be part of it.”

For tickets to the foundation’s event in Sydney, or if you would like to be involved with any future events, please contact [email protected] or phone 0412 184 048.