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Findings on fertility hit footballers where it hurts

Those slightly indelicate postures adopted by footballers at the tensest moments of a match may not, after all, be quite necessary.

Scientific evidence suggests that when players feel the need to protect themselves from the power of a Gascoigne free kick, the hands-on approach may be superfluous.

For the wall of masculinity surrounding the modern player has been breached, and soccer is, for the first time, linked with the occurrence of smaller testicles. It raises the possibility of impaired fertility in players, particularly those with tough training regimes.

Dr Andrea Scaramuzza, a paediatrician at the Azienda Istituti Pospitalieri in Cremona, and colleagues, have discovered that schoolboy players from clubs such as AC Milan and AC Monza who do a lot of physical training, suffer from varicose veins - known as a varicocele - around the spermatic cord (which transports sperm from the testicle to the penis).

They also tend to have smaller testicles than boys who do not train. Dr Scaramuzza warns that this can lead to deteriorating fertility, and is calling for the regular examination of all adolescent male athletes to prevent infertility in later life.

In tomorrow's issue of The Lancet, Dr Scaramuzza says he does not know why training should cause varicoceles but suggests it might be "a mechanical effect of exercise." About 200 boys aged between 10-14 took part in the study. None of the boys who did not train had varicoceles but of 73 who trained for 10 hours or more a week, almost a third had the condition.

Their testes were smaller than those of boys without varicoceles, an average volume of 6.7 compared with 7.4 millilitres.