This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
In a recent interview, Germany's team doctor, Hans-Wilhelm Müller-Wohlfahrt, claimed that there was no doping in football because it didn't really help—a statement that was later rejected by the country's National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA). But it's not only NADA that has shown that soccer players can and do benefit from taking performance-enhancing drugs.
Lotfi El Bousidi was a professional footballer who spent his career playing in Switzerland, Spain, and Germany. During his career, El Bousidi noticed the discrepancies in doping procedures between football and other sports. He claims that he and his teammates were rarely tested, while in individual sports such as athletics and cycling, athletes are constantly subjected to spot checks.
While playing for Mainz in Germany's second division, he enrolled in a Sports Science degree at the city's Johannes Gutenberg University. Aiming to better educate players on the health risks associated with doping, El Bousidi dedicated his final thesis to finding out what they knew about performance-enhancing drugs. For it, he interviewed former colleagues and found that as many as 30 percent in some leagues admitted to doping.
With soccer fans not-so-subtly questioning whether all the remaining eight teams at the World Cup are clean or not, we decided to speak to El Bousidi to find out exactly how easy it is for a professional soccer player to get away with doping.
VICE: What motivated you to do your dissertation on doping in soccer?
Lotfi El Bousidi: I was only ever tested once throughout my entire career, while some players I knew were never tested at all. I also thought back to all the stories I heard about former players from the 80s and 90s who were injected with all sorts of drugs, and are now suffering from a range of extreme health problems.
How likely is it that every player at the 2018 World Cup is clean?
For me, it's very unlikely that they're all clean. In big tournaments, whether it's the Champions League or the World Cup, the level of performance required is much higher than for a regular league game, so players are tempted to cheat. And the teams themselves want their players performing at peak levels. That's why I bet that if there were proper testing at these tournaments, we would see more failed tests.
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Do you have an idea how many players at the World Cup are doping?
I can't really speculate on that. In the Bundesliga [Germany's top domestic league] I discovered through my research that around 15 percent of players have doped at least once. In Spain, it was as high as 30 percent. And as I said, the required performance levels to compete in a World Cup is a lot higher. But on the other hand, the risk of getting caught is a lot higher too.
Is there any way to tell if a player is doping?
The only way to be completely sure is through testing. It's difficult, if not impossible, for a spectator to tell which players are clean or not. If an entire team is remarkably fit throughout an entire World Cup, especially in particularly exhausting games, then I would worry. At this level, there shouldn't be any serious outliers—fitness levels should be relatively similar across the board.
Some people might remember Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, who was implicated in a major cycling doping scandal. He openly said that he had soccer players among his patients, as well as cyclists.
But some people say that doping doesn't actually help soccer players.
I would say that doping is definitely more useful before a major tournament like the World Cup, and not necessarily during. There are so many games in such a short space of time, so the players have less time to recover. There are things you can do in the pre-tournament training phase to help your body learn to recover quicker and slow down the onset of fatigue—a way of pushing away the pain. But doing so is always dangerous to your health. Your body isn't telling you to stop for no reason.
Do players always know that they are taking illegal substance?
No, not necessarily. One of the most shocking things I discovered is the alarmingly high number of my former teammates who don't know what is on the banned substances list. And very few of them question what they are given, to the point where if they were caught, they probably wouldn't have even heard of the drug they were accused of taking.
During your career, were you ever given anything that made you wonder?
No—not that I can remember. But you can never be 100 percent sure.
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Do players dope themselves or do they always get help from their coaches and team doctor?
Some of the players I surveyed said that they bought steroids themselves on the black market. But those were mostly players who wanted to get back up to full fitness as quickly as possible after an injury.
What did you want to achieve through your research?
Above all, I wanted to educate my colleagues about the health risks associated with doping because many of them seemed to understand so little about it. Also, I think footballers should be role models. Since my research was published, The VDV (German Players Union) has taken more of an interest in doping prevention and education.
How did you get the players to open up to you?
I knew many of them personally because I did the survey in the countries I either played in or have very good contacts with. It was important that they saw me as one of them, otherwise, they wouldn't have felt comfortable taking part. Secondly, they trusted that the survey would be anonymous and that there was no way that their answers could be traced back to them.
Paolo Guerrero, the Peru captain, nearly missed the World Cup because he tested positive in 2017 for a residual product of cocaine. Should players who take party drugs expect to get caught?
Of course. In many ways, it's worse for your image than doping. That's why most of the professionals that I know have never really been into recreational drugs.
Can you still enjoy soccer despite what you know about doping in the game?
Of course. I still love it as much as I ever have.
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