Saturday 3 December 2016

Richard Sadlier: Doping exists in football too - only the deluded think otherwise

rsadlier@independent.ie

Published 17/01/2016 | 17:00

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says doping exists in football too. Photo:Richard Sellers/PA Wire
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says doping exists in football too. Photo:Richard Sellers/PA Wire

I was recently asked if I would have doped throughout my career if I knew I wouldn't be caught. I said I wouldn't have, as long as I knew everyone else stayed clean too. If the practice ever became widespread in the game I'm not sure what I might have done, but there was less ambiguity when the question turned to my early retirement.

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If a doctor had offered me a banned substance to help my hip to recover, I would have taken it, and probably asked for more. I would let others debate the rights and wrongs if I eventually got caught, but for me back then it wouldn't have been a dilemma.

Arsene Wenger spoke yet again last week about doping in football in the light of the WADA report on the IAAF. He said the issue has been neglected and ignored in the game for too long. "We have all to fight against doping," he told the assembled media. "You and I celebrated super-champions who were maybe only cheats." Some will say he should speak up more and be specific in what he means, but at least he's prepared to discuss the blindingly obvious. There's a good chance doping is a big issue in professional football.

'But it doesn't really benefit footballers,' the deluded will say. What about speed, strength, stamina, endurance and power? Are these not essential in the modern game? 'Doping won't improve your first touch,' they'll add. Maybe not, but if your opponent gets to the ball before you that won't matter. 'Virtually nobody tests positive,' they'll conclude. Yes, but given the sophisticated ways in which doping can be concealed, it takes a serious approach to effectively tackle it. And nobody could describe the current system as that.

The risk of getting caught will put some players off, but not everyone. The lack of access to expertise might be an issue for some, but easily overcome if the will is there.

And few in professional football would be put off by significant expense. If it's something a player wanted to do he could do it very easily.

Don't think the potential for long-term side effects is a deterrent either. I agreed to a second hip operation when I was 23 despite being warned it would cause me significant problems for the rest of my life. I was told there was a possibility it would extend my playing career into my late 20s so I jumped at the chance.

I think I took about ten seconds to consider it, but only because the surgeon told me to give it some thought before deciding. Obviously no rules were broken by me having hip surgery, but short-term returns trump long-term difficulties every time.

The reasons for doping are obvious, but people are still largely reluctant to accept that footballers would succumb to the temptation. Do they really believe players are collectively bound by a code of morality that rejects the multiple benefits? That there's something intrinsically decent and pure about their attitude to competition? The reality is entirely different, of course, and only a wall of denial could block someone from seeing this for themselves.

Players are running faster than ever, with some recording greater speeds even as they grow older. They are covering more ground during games and recovering from injuries quicker. There has never been a time in the sport where the physical demands are greater. The financial rewards have never been more and that matters too. Does this mean footballers are all open to doping or the fittest and fastest are automatically cheats? Of course not, especially when you consider the advances in sports science. But even the dullest of inquisitive minds would be open to the possibility.

While athletics has to come to terms with the content of the WADA report, there aren't many voices in football warning against complacency in this area. Wenger has done so numerous times and yet he is still largely ignored.

The sport doesn't want to know. Fans don't want to consider it and sponsors and television companies don't care either. Dope cheats are cyclists or athletes. They're muscle-bound cheats competing in a sport of a different kind. Football is clean, or so the story goes.

Maybe people aren't ready to consider the truth because they just couldn't take it. The illusion that players are inherently pure is serving them well. And when some are eventually exposed as cheats, as they inevitably will, wait for the outrage that comes from those who think they have been betrayed. Doping happens for many reasons, and is proven to be effective, but a football career is the greatest you can have if that's your thing. Decide for yourselves where you would draw the line at what you would do to achieve it.

Sunday Indo Sport

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