Miguel Delaney: Football is refusing to accept it has a drug problem
Football has a long history of doping, and there is clear evidence it's an ongoing issue
Published 10/04/2016 | 17:00
It was news that caused a huge stir but, on proper reflection, should not have been that surprising. On Monday, Chelsea changed the football headlines by finally confirming Antonio Conte will be their new manager. It was what everyone expected, yet there was still a curiosity to the coverage. Not mentioned in the press release nor in any of the outlines of the Italian's career was something that would probably be a landmark development - and lasting stain - in any other sport. It was all the more relevant because of the previous day's headlines, that a Dr Mark Bonar had admitted to undercover reporters from The Sunday Times that he had doped footballers.
In 2004, leading haematologist Dr Giuseppe D'Onofrio testified he was "practically certain" Conte had used EPO when a player at Juventus, with the stated reason it was medication for anaemia.
All the doctors asked while researching this article said that kind of treatment is "bizarre", but that is an apt word as it sums up the outcome of that Juventus case, and football's entire attitude to doping. Many like to think the fluid technique-based nature of the sport makes it almost immune to performance-enhancing drugs. It is really a sport almost immune to fully registering the issue, no matter what news comes out.
Despite the fact that football's records are as riddled with evidence of high-profile doping cases as almost any other sport bar athletics and cycling, there is this strange shock any time a new story comes up. It is seemingly a sport with no memory of its past in that regard and, consequently, not much willingness to tackle the problem for the future.
The past week reflects much of this, right down to the fact that Conte's playing history simply didn't come up. Despite the waves last Sunday's report initially caused - and even allowing for the justifiable questioning of Dr Bonar's credibility - it was not discussed that night on Match of the Day 2 and very quickly receded in relevance. By Friday, for example, neither Mauricio Pochettino nor Arsene Wenger were even asked about it in their weekly press conferences. Some of the many radio shows that did discuss it still featured the odd atrociously out-dated line that there is no doping available that improves skill, so it just isn't a real concern for football.
That is an illogical argument, one again worth demolishing. Doping fundamentally gives a player more energy and, if that means that fatigue does not prevent them applying their ability in the crucial last few minutes of a match or last few games of a campaign, for example, the immense benefits are obvious.
Jörg Jaksche is a former cyclist who was caught using EPO and admitted working with the notorious Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, who also claimed to treat a series of footballers having been caught in the Operacion Puerto case. Jaksche almost snorts in derision when discussing the issue with the Sunday Independent.
The last week reminded him of when Stuttgart and Freiburg - the former team of current Germany manager Jogi Löw - were recently reported to have used anabolic steroids in the early 1980s.
"After a week, no-one cared," Jaksche says. "It was just wiped. Löw just said it didn't happen and that was it. I'm sure that of course there are soccer players involved [in doping]. It's an athletic sport, a lot of endurance, and a lot of money. This is the old excuse, that doping can't score goals. If you are less tired, your co-ordination is higher. That's extremely important in soccer.
"Turn it around? Why should soccer be clean? Soccer has a long tradition of cheating. Diving - we don't have that in cycling. We have doping, but we don't have that unethical behaviour. They try to get benefits at all costs . . . why shouldn't they dope? What people want to sell you is the extreme of what is the truth, they want to sell you a story that doping was never part of football, and that is just not true."
It certainly isn't and you don't even have to go down as far as Freiburg to prove this collective amnesia. Look at one of the biggest competitions of all. Many around football openly scoff at how people can follow a competition as sullied as the Tour de France but it is no exaggeration to say the history of the Champions League could have been rewritten in a similar way, or at least have an awful lot of asterisks on its roll of honour.
Just look at what we know, and can legally discuss. In 1965 - at a time when goalkeeper Albert Dunlop had admitted Everton won the 1963 English title after taking Benzedrine, Drinamyl and "as many tablets as we liked" - Internazionale were also winning a second successive European Cup through both match-fixing and amphetamine-taking. This was revealed by the brother of star player Sandro Mazzola, squad member Ferruccio Mazzola.
"I saw [manager] Helenio Herrera providing pills that were placed under our tongues," he wrote in a controversial autobiography. "Some of us would spit them out. Eventually, Herrera found out and decided to dilute them in coffee. From that day on, 'Il Caffe Herrera' became a habit at Inter."
Such doping also became a habit at other European champions. Dutch international defender Rinus Israel admitted 1970 winners Feyenoord were also taking amphetamines, with as many as eight of 10 outfield players on pills in big games. They were succeeded by Ajax, who were so advanced in their attitude to amphetamines that they would only be taken by the defensive and midfield players who had to run and work, because the creative players were required to think clearly. It wasn't quite a modern doping programme - at a time when FIFA competitions banned such pills but UEFA weren't as switched on - however, it was the thinking that helped bring three successive European Cups between 1970 and 1973. Evidence has since emerged that Bayern Munich used the same approach in achieving the same feat between 1973 and 1976.
Former Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni had to defend 1985 champions Juventus from reports they used the muscle-strengthening substance carnitine shortly before they won the title, and the club had to defend itself in a much more serious manner just over a decade later, shortly after winning the 1996 Champions League. In 1998, Roma manager Zdenek Zeman publicly cast doubt on the imposing physical development of some of the Juve players, sparking a raid on their training ground and a two-year court case.
It was here that the revelations about Conte came out, as well as club records which showed a series of other players - in a squad that included Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane - had hematocrit values consistent with EPO usage. "There's no other way," Dr D'Onofrio stated.
Yet despite "almost incontrovertible proof of a club-administered drugs programme", as the book Addicted to Winning? by Ivan Waddington and Andy Smith put it, the case ended with a series of appeals to initial guilty verdicts for club doctor Riccardo Agricola and the statute of limitations ultimately running out.
It was the classic legal fudge, offering sufficient shades of grey for those unwilling to believe to remain in denial. That is also where football is now regarding doping.
Despite the case, that Juventus side is still commonly talked of as one of the great teams. Despite that history, and the fact that at least six different European champions perpetuated a culture of performance-enhancing drugs, any stories of doping are still greeted with disbelief, to the point where they are not really acknowledged and have no lasting effect.
Is it realistic to think that doping at that level of the game and at that scale stopped back then? In an era when science has become more sophisticated and the potential reward has by far exceeded the risk of getting caught?
There's also the very deep problem, as regards exposure, that football simply doesn't have as many red flags because it is not time-measured in the way athletics or cycling are, where suspicious spikes in performance are so conspicuous.
Ben Nichols of WADA feels the sport has made positive steps in testing, but it's hard to escape the fact that it's in a race that's almost impossible to win.
"In anti-doping, we're going against a tide of big business, and more and more of a temptation to win at all costs. The net is closing in but, at the same time, the cheats are getting more sophisticated. There's more money and temptation, we have these things running in parallel and therein lies the challenge."
Klaas Faber is an analytical chemist and anti-doping expert and can't hide his scepticism.
"My former supervisor in the United States, he was nominated for the Nobel prize in chemistry, would laugh about the current anti-doping science. They would just laugh about it, ridiculous. That makes it so sad, because it affects people. Out-of-competition testing doesn't work."
All of that creates so much space to dope without consequence. Despite that, there are an overwhelming number of former and current footballers who will tell you the sport is clean, that they've never seen much evidence of doping. If that is true, however, it should be much easier to get medical and backroom employees from the game to even talk about the subject. That is emphatically not the case. Very few figures in football will go on the record about it. The Sunday Independent tried to talk to a series of people, but only got the following range of excuses:
"The bosses don't want me to."
"Want to leave the issue behind."
"Don't want to get into it."
That is not to automatically conclude this amounts to a cycling-style omerta, especially given the way clubs guard what amount to trade secrets in terms of conditioning, but it is at least a curious attitude that invites further questioning.
Those questions only increase when you consider the stories told off the record. If it's a case of speak-no-evil in public, it certainly isn't hear-no-evil in private.
First of all, there is the account of the doctor who left a club by his own choice a few years ago because he was uncomfortable with the procedures the manager wanted him to carry out. Then there is the high-profile continental player who is jokingly described as a "champion" in the field of missing drug tests and using his lawyer to get him off. One manager was so suspicious of a rival's results, meanwhile, that he made direct accusations to friendly journalists off the record. Finally, there are all the theories swirling around about certain injury records and endurance levels.
None of these stories are corroborated and they all amount to little more than conjecture or hearsay, but they do go against the idea that this isn't being talked about within the game, that there is just widespread belief in its cleanliness.
Players may publicly say they've never seen anything untoward, but many others say players barely ask what the many supplements they take are. One representative of a number of Premier League players says he has frequently asked clients about the conditioning programmes at their clubs. The majority take "whatever they're given without question". He adds: "They don't even think about it."
We do know that caffeine pills are particularly popular at some Premier League clubs right now, but for Faber, this - along with the ongoing use of pain-killing injections - amounts to as big a concern as outright doping, and is inherently connected to it. It is effectively the Maria Sharapova problem, of athletes abusing what is allowed until it is disallowed.
"Currently, with this arbitrary list [of banned substances], it's practically unsolvable," Faber says. "So we can talk about doping, whatever that means, but there's a much bigger problem that just leads to hypocrisy. So, for example, meldonium has been allowed . . . you say abused, I say used, it's a scientific development that enhances performance in some way. So, what are you going to do? Just wait for it to be banned, and then don't take it anymore. That's what's currently happening.
"Take something innocent like beetroot extract. It was discovered that it enhances performance, just like EPO does, and suddenly all the urine samples started colouring red. Why was that? It's just because people want to enhance performance and wait until it's prohibited. Natural substances, if you take them in unnaturally high concentrations like caffeine pills, it's not natural anymore."
That also touches on the fundamental sporting wrong of doping beyond health concerns. It just leads to medical teams looking to push the limits of what is allowed, and moves the inherent competitiveness of the sport more and more away from the pitch, and into the labs. The best-resourced labs will naturally have a huge advantage, and that should be an even bigger problem for football, which already has so many financial disparities.
It is little wonder, from that perspective, some people in the game are unwilling to talk about what they do.
"I don't like it," Faber says. "I'm a basic scientist, doing complicated work but, put very simply, if I watch as a spectator, I want to know what I'm looking at. It's as simple as that. So certain rules have to be obeyed, but doping is so poorly defined . . . so I still don't know what I'm looking at, even if people say there's no doping. I don't know what I'm looking at."
It's hard not to feel like that with football as a whole right now.
Sunday Indo Sport