While society generally frowns upon our beloved sportsmen honking on drugs, it is hard not to harbour a sneaking admiration for those who have cultivated a taste for the venerable spliff. While steroids, stimulants, amphetamines and cocaine are all defined as performance enhancing – and as such using them is something of an ethical no-no – there are few who would argue athletic endeavour is heightened by a drug the common side effects of which include acute inactivity, dozing off on the sofa and demolishing half a multipack of Wotsits. The closest that smoking weed comes to enhancing sporting ability is when it coincides with a seven-hour session on FIFA, which some suit over at WADA might argue obliquely increases tactical awareness and thumb agility. Other than that, sparking up a joint before attempting exercise is likely to limit one's effectiveness in almost every way, and as such seems perversely commendable in that it is basically the ultimate test of human skill, dexterity, endurance and coordination.
On the basis of this mildly facetious logic, there are a select band of professional footballers who we must single out for special praise. Though football is not as replete with potheads as some other sports – we're looking at you, MMA – there are a significant number of players who have been busted for smoking weed down the years. There are some cult heroes among them and some relative unknowns, while their love of the bud varies considerably. One way or another, these are the men who have inadvertently pioneered spliffs, joints, zoots, blunts and quite possibly bongs in the beautiful game.
Whether it's because it was the height of hedonism or simply because nobody was tested beforehand, the mid nineties seem to have been the absolute peak of footballers in England coming up positive for weed. In the eighties, we can presume the average footballer's piss was 80% unfiltered real ale, hence making traces of recreational drug use almost impossible to determine even were someone to have tried. By the nineties, however, drinking culture in the dressing room was starting to subside somewhat, and a handful of footballers decided to get experimental with their downtime. So, in an absolute gift for the tabloids, soon-to-be Tottenham stalwart Chris Armstrong – then still at Crystal Palace – was the first of several to test positive for cannabis in the spring of 1995.
The ludicrous overreaction to this news is perhaps best summed up by this article in The Independent, which includes the frankly majestic sentence: "While cannabis may induce the sensation of floating, it does not actually enable its user to glide past defenders or hang in the air waiting for a cross." The author had the right idea, in fairness, by pointedly critiquing the response to Armstrong's indiscretion and the general hypocrisy on show at the time. While other footballers were being convicted for drink driving, assault and affray and reintegrated into football almost immediately, Armstrong was left out of the Palace team for four matches on the orders of the FA and ordered to attend counselling and rehab. Being forced to attend rehab for privately smoking weed seems to rather undermine the seriousness of the process, but the powers that be clearly wanted to show the wider footballing fraternity that they were tackling the scourge of bifta head on.
There was something inherently specious about the treatment of Armstrong in light of his failed test, in that those who were most eager to castigate him for having a smoke would most likely have reacted with a wink and a nod had he been necking a dozen pints instead. While the latter would have more closely conformed to the stereotype of Anglo-Saxon national identity, it would almost certainly have been worse for him in terms of his health, fitness and sporting prowess. No doubt there were those in the predominantly white, nineties footballing establishment to whom chronic alcohol abuse of the sort that afflicted Tony Adams would have been more acceptable than occasionally inhaling marijuana, a drug that they would probably have associated with subcultures, black immigrant communities and illegality. Ultimately, attempting to deter players from one potentially harmful drug while ignoring the effects of another was to the detriment of both Adams and Armstrong, whatever the legal status of their substance of choice.
Armstrong was not the only one to succumb to the temptation of the spliff that year, with Charlton's Dean Chandler and Lee Bowyer also busted after a training ground check. Both were banned for several months and sent on a rehabilitation course, a sanction that in hindsight seems like a major factor in derailing Chandler's career. Once again, the punishment was considerably worse than the crime, with its long-term effects far more damaging for the players in question than the indeterminate quantity of weed involved. The "pot-smoking" tag was famously used as an additional moral indictment of Bowyer by The Daily Mirror six years later, at a time when he was in the spotlight for the far more serious crime of causing grievous bodily harm.
In the context of such a serious allegation – the attack was widely reported to be racially motivated – the relevance of Bowyer's history with weed should have come into question. Once again, there were elements of the football press who were ready to lump smoking a bit of bud in with the most severe crimes, and moralise over the drug in the same breath as a charge of beating up a man for the colour of his skin. Bowyer is perhaps a special case in this sense, in that the weed smoking antics of his youth were used by the tabloids in an attempt to illustrate some deeper moral decay, and so explain the appalling behaviour of his adulthood. The media were kinder to English football's final weed casualty of the mid nineties, David Hillier. Not only did the Arsenal midfielder have the look of an innocent schoolboy, it was also claimed that he had failed his test because of passive smoking as opposed to the cultivation of some enormous Camberwell Carrot for personal use.
While there are players who have turned out in the lower leagues who have suggested that weed is the least of it when it comes to drugs in football – as well as evidence to suggest that lighting up a spliff at half-time is far from unheard of in the amateur game – even the very best footballers are occasionally prone to a surreptitious smoke. Ian Wright admitted in his column for The Sun that he used to enjoy a spliff in his early career, while in a 2003 interview on Italian television Roberto Mancini reportedly conceded that he had smoked weed. Generally, when a footballer opts to out himself after his playing days as opposed to being caught in the meantime, he's given a much easier ride by the media. We're all for a naughty confessional, see, as long as a player isn't getting high on our time.
Since the nineties and early noughties, there have been far fewer reports of English footballers getting caught out for having a casual smoke. This isn't because there's less weed being consumed, per se, but because the FA have adopted a general policy of refusing to name and shame those found guilty of recreational doping offences. This isn't necessarily a sign of the footballing establishment becoming more sympathetic towards players – or more reasonable and realistic about the circumstances in which they light up – so much as further proof of how much they value their brand. As such, there are many unsung heroes of the spliff who grace our pitches every weekend, unidentified in the interest of public relations and keeping negative headlines to a minimum.
Overseas, however, it is a different story. Following in the footsteps of Mancini and former West Ham goalkeeper Bernard Lama – banned for two months for smoking weed while he was still at PSG in 1997 – there are numerous foreign footballers who have been busted for supposedly getting baked. These include Wilder Medina, a Colombian striker who tested positive for cannabis three times in early 2011, one-time Spurs man Mbulelo Mabizela, and former Bolton Wanderers loanee Euzebiusz Smolarek, who tested positive for cannabinol in 2002 even though he strenuously denied having ever smoked weed. Still, none of them can match Gino Coutinho, a Dutch goalkeeper who was jailed in 2011 for his part in the running of a weed farm of over 4,200 plants. We dread to think what our tabloids would give to see an English footballer caught with that big a stash.