Doping in Football: Does the Beautiful Game Need to Confront an Ugly Truth?

UEFA has implemented strict new anti-doping regulations, but asserts that football is almost entirely clean. Is the beautiful game really untainted by drugs, or are the authorities being wilfully ignorant?
October 19, 2015, 2:10pm
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This story originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Everyone remembers that image of Diego Maradona at the 1994 World Cup. After scoring against Greece he raced towards the TV cameras, eyes bulging so far out of their sockets he appeared almost like a crazed cartoon character who'd just spotted a teetering ACME anvil perched high above. At that point it became apparent that something wasn't right with the greatest football player of his generation.

That was confirmed by another similarly cartoonish image of Maradona – the villain to his undeniable genius – being led away by a nurse (resplendent in caricature nurse outfit) to undergo the drugs test that would eventually lead to a 15-month ban from the sport. To this day, it is the highest-profile case of doping in football.

And yet it remains something of an isolated case, at least in the public eye. Athletics, swimming, skiing, tennis, cricket and of course cycling have all had at least one, but football is still to experience a watershed in its fight against doping. The sport is yet to have its own Lance Armstrong moment, despite one appearing to be on the horizon for the best part of a decade.

However, a potential doping scandal in football could be coming. Just this month UEFA implemented strict new regulations, adopting the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) biological passport scheme, calling the measures "the strongest anti-doping programme ever seen in European football".

Such new rules might well be needed. A recent study commissioned by UEFA revealed hundreds of "atypical" doping tests from professional football players all the way to the top of the game, including the Champions League and the Europa League. Of more than 4,000 urine samples taken 68 players recorded abnormal results, indicating the possible use of banned anabolic steroids.

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In fact, the study found that 7.7 per cent of the 879 players that recorded abnormal tests charted such high levels of testosterone that an investigation would have been triggered under UEFA's new anti-doping regulations. If the alarm bells weren't ringing with Maradona's manic celebration 21 years ago, they certainly should be now.

Not as far as UEFA are concerned, however. European football's governing body made combating doping a priority, along with fighting racism and match-fixing, at their last Executive Committee meeting. But they claim that the study – the most comprehensive and far-reaching in the sport's history – "does not present any scientific evidence of potential doping in football, especially due to the presence of confounding factors, the lack of standardisation procedures among the 12 laboratories, and the quantification of steroid profiles when the samples were collected."

The statement released in response to the study instead used the recordings to underline UEFA's track record in doping testing. "UEFA has had a very thorough anti-doping programme for many years with over 2,000 tests a year and only two occurrences of positive tests, both for recreational drugs, which proves that doping in football is extremely rare," it continued.

However, an examination of doping's recent history in European football doesn't exactly render UEFA's claims favourably.

Eufemiano Fuentes could be the gatekeeper to a potential football doping scandal. The Spaniard was the doctor at the heart of the Operacion Puerto doping case that began nearly a decade ago and rocked the sport of cycling. The scandal implicated several of the world's most famous and successful cyclists following Fuentes' trial in Madrid two years ago, but the investigation embroiled more than just the two-wheeled sport.

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Following a raid on Fuentes' home in 2006, hundreds of tainted blood samples – all labelled and documented – were seized. By the doctor's own admission only a minority of what was seized by authorities belonged to cyclists, with the majority of his clients competing in other sports.

So where are the others?

According to Jesus Manzano, the Spanish road cyclist and whistleblower in the Operacion Puerto case, many of them can be found in football. During more than three hours on trial in Madrid, Manzano testified that he had seen "well-known footballers" visit Fuentes at his clinic in Spain, with the doctor himself admitting working with several bodies, clubs and figures within the sport.

"I've worked with Spanish football teams from the first and second divisions that have improved their performance," Fuentes said in an interview with a Spanish radio station. "If I talk Spain would be stripped of the World Cup and European Championship."

Fuentes' claims are supported by French newspaper Le Monde, which uncovered a list of the Spanish doctor's clients, including the medical records of Real Madrid players, along with those of players at other top Spanish clubs. Barcelona are also alleged to have been involved after Luis Garcia del Moral, one of the doctors who helped supply Armstrong's doping ring at the US Postal Service cycling team, claimed to have worked with the club at one point over the previous decade.

Spanish football in particular is intertwined throughout the case made against Fuentes, with the doctor himself offering to name the athletes – including football players – he treated over the course of his medical career. However, the judge at the Madrid trial decided that he was under no obligation to do so. It would seem there is a full list, and a literal blood trail, linking all the doping dots, and yet it may never be followed.

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"We've been banging our heads against a brick wall to get access to the evidence that was gathered," David Howman, general director of WADA, complained after access to Fuentes' computer and email records was denied. Such rulings have done little to reduce suspicions that the Spanish court system is complicit in protecting the interests of the country's sporting giants.

Regardless of the evidence to the contrary, there remains a flat denial of the threat of doping across the sport. "Football is 100 per cent clean," Cristiano Ronaldo once said. "It would have to be a massive conspiracy," Lord Triesman, former chairman of the FA, mused. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque insists that he has "never seen doping in football and I don't think I ever will." UEFA themselves say doping in football is "extremely rare."

Others aren't so sure, though.

As Marcel Desailly once bluntly put it, "Doping exists in football – that's so obvious it would be stupid to deny it." Stefan Matschiner – a former athletics agent and convicted doping enabler – claims that "doping is just as much a problem in football as it is in tennis, athletics, swimming and cycling: "It's part of daily life and I've worked with footballers." The Austrian's belief is widely held by numerous medical professionals across sport. Even football managers themselves have cast doubt on the game's purity.

"We have had some players come to us at Arsenal from other clubs around the world and their red blood cell count has been abnormally high," Arsene Wenger explained in 2004. "That kind of thing makes you wonder. There are clubs who dope their players without the players knowing. Their club might say that they were being injected with vitamins and their players would not necessarily know that it was something different."

Wenger might be referring to the use of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) – or blood-spinning as it is more commonly known – in football. The practice has not long been removed from WADA's banned list, making PRP technically legal, even when most spun blood has been supplemented with other substances and additives before it is re-injected back into the athlete's stream.

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Questions remain over the efficiency of doping testing in football too, with Joey Barton once revealing that he had never been asked to provide blood, only ever providing a urine sample, over the course of his 13-year professional career.

It's true that testing at major tournaments has been ramped up. For instance, at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, approximately 1,000 tests – including samples from all 736 players – were taken, compared to the 576 samples taken for the 2010 tournament in South Africa. But while that is a marked increase, the majority of samples are still taken in the weeks preceding the competition.

The loopholes are still there to be exploited.

UEFA and FIFA claim to have brought football in line with the kind of doping testing seen in cycling, yet measures at major tournaments are nowhere near that of a competition like the Tour de France, which this year took 622 samples – more than three per rider.

There is an arrogance about football's attitude towards the possibility of doping tainting the sport – as if the same scandal that has engulfed other sports couldn't possibly happen to the beautiful game.

Perhaps such hubris comes from a belief that doping fundamentally doesn't warp football and its results in the way it does with other sports. Football is a game that counts on technical ability just as much, if not more, than it does physicality and athletic capacity. It is a sport played with the head just as much as with the legs. So, unlike cycling or swimming, stamina, speed and general athleticism don't determine results. That doesn't mean an advantage cannot be gained by artificially boosting such attributes, however.

Time and time again football has ignored – perhaps consciously – the warning signs, with the UEFA-commissioned report released this month just the latest red flag raised. Denial over the possibility of doping being more widespread in football than is openly recognised can be traced all the way to the very top of the game, with outgoing FIFA President Sepp Blatter – who actually sits on the WADA board – once remarking, "It is not a question of fighting doping. But one should not really go for a witch-hunt."

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The FA insists that there is a transparency to the way doping is regarded by the sport, however. "We have exceptionally few cases of positive tests for performance enhancing drugs, which reflects the findings from drug testing in football worldwide," a spokesperson for the organisation said. Their anti-doping programme, which like UEFA's has been revised for the 2015/16 season, apparently "combines testing and education to ensure that it is effective in detecting and deterring drug use within the game." A positive test on a match day can now lead to a four-year ban, even for a first offence – and yet the sport still appears ignorant.

The list of former players and footballing figures who have shed light on the murky practice of doping is lengthy. Take former Argentinean international Matias Almeyda, who claimed in his autobiography that he and his Parma teammates were regularly hooked up to a mysterious drip before matches. "They said it was a mixture of vitamins," he wrote. "But before entering the field I was able to jump up as high as the ceiling."

Jose Mourinho has spoken of a certain "Dr Needles" working at Chelsea, not to mention the fact that the WADA uncovered in 2011 that more football players violated anti-doping regulations (117) than athletes from any other sport. Football has no reason to be complacent; in fact, it has more reason than most to be suspicious.