Soccer needs to take doping problem much more seriously

Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho is facing a lengthy suspension after failing a drug test  

LOOK at the following soccer side line-up, full of well-known names: Angelo Peruzzi; Frank de Boer, Jaap Stam, Rio Ferdinand, Abel Xavier; Edgar Davids, Pep Guardiola, Lee Bowyer; Adrian Mutu, Diego Maradona, Claudio Caniggia.

They’d make a pretty decent team at the peak of their careers. Why’d I pick them in particular? Well, perhaps if I’d included Liverpool centre-half Mamadou Sakho the answer would be more obvious.

All failed - or failed to attend - drugs tests at some stage of their career and, although many of them protested their innocence, most of them had to serve bans. Google ‘football doping’ and you’ll see a list of well over 100 professional players who have been banned for drug offences.

Arijan Ademi is alphabetically the first name on that list. We’ll come back to him later. Yet, soccer still acts as if there’s no problem, as if all these cases are isolated incidents. More than 100 ‘one-offs’, as it were.

The first World Cup I remember was the 1978 edition in Argentina (yep, I was a very precocious baby). Apart from the ticker tape and Alan Rough’s dodgy goalkeeping, one of the abiding memories is of Scotland winger Willie Johnston being sent home in disgrace having tested positive for a banned stimulant, which he claimed was in his hayfever medication.

Doping in football goes back far further than that, though. It’s not just Italy or Spain where there have been dark rumours of systematic doping. Anyone who’s read into English football history is probably aware of ‘Major’ Frank Buckley at Wolverhampton Wanderers and the notorious ‘monkey gland’ injections he apparently gave to his players.

Search on the internet about Buckley and there’s mention of ‘pep pills’ at Arsenal in the 1920s and relegation-threatened Chelsea’s dalliance with ‘gland treatment’ just before the Second World War.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, looking at the BBC Sport website on Monday night, just over two days after news broke about Sakho’s failed sample, there was no mention of this story.

Given that this apparently occurred after the second leg of the first ever European tie between English football’s two most successful and best-supported clubs, the lack of interest is quite frankly astonishing.

The Sunday Times recently made doping allegations against four English soccer clubs, three of them prominent in the Premier League. That was barely followed up by the rest of the media.

The sense one gets is of a sport, and many of those who cover it, saying ‘Move along now, nothing to see here, please leave the stadium…’ The idea is often put about that there’s no doping problem in soccer because it’s a team sport highly dependent on skill, that there’s no advantage accrued from taking ‘performance-enhancing’ drugs, is obviously ludicrous. The fact that Mark Lawrenson took that stance post-Sakho proves my point.

As with many team sports, soccer has become less about skill and more about fitness and stamina. If Sakho took ‘fat-burning’ diet pills - as his clubmate Kolo Toure did during his time at Manchester City - it was in order to gain an advantage. Clearly, you can run further, faster and for longer if you are carrying less weight.

Players want short cuts to get into better shape, whether that be by losing weight or gaining muscle. Drugs won’t kick or head the ball accurately, but they will help get you to that ball when it matters.

Former German international Paul Breitner once put it very well, saying: “The footballer who believes that, with doping, he can keep his starting place, who can contribute more to victory and can earn more money - why would he not use doping? The motivation to dope is the same for a footballer as it is for a cyclist.”

Yet, there’s almost greater outrage about the use of ‘recreational drugs’, such as cocaine, cannabis or ecstasy, perhaps because clubs are worried about their image and losing valuable sponsorship money if the perception of players as role models is damaged. While not condoning the use of such drugs, they are not performance-enhancing, probably the opposite. So what is the sport doing about the problem?

One can see the sense in Uefa’s stance that at least two players on a side must be found guilty of a drug offence before any action would be taken against their club.
After all, it would be harsh on a team to be thrown out of a cup competition or deducted league points because of the stupid actions of one individual.

However, the alternative argument, certainly whenever any performance-enhancing drug is involved, is that, if the team gained an advantage by illicit means, then it should be punished.

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger advanced that theory after Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Arijan Ademi was banned for four years after failing a drugs test following their 2-1 Champions League victory over the Gunners in September - but the result was not overturned. Wenger said: “I personally don’t agree with the rule. You cannot say that they had a doped player but the result stands. That means you basically accept doping.”

Certainly, it would be a much greater deterrent for players if they knew that a doping offence was likely to cost their team/club very dearly indeed, at the very least leading to a defeat in that particular match. And if clubs knew those likely consequences too, then they would ensure they could sack any player who was proved to have taken banned substances.

That would be a virtuous circle which would remove a lot of the drug use that goes on in the sport. The sport needs to listen to Wenger and stop pretending there is no doping problem in the game.

Sure, Maradona, one of the greatest players ever, was banned after the 1994 World Cup, but he and Willie Johnston are very notable exceptions, as Wenger pointed out in an interview with L’Equipe: “It is very difficult for me to believe that you have 740 players at the World Cup and you come out with zero problems.

“Mathematically, that happens every time. But statistically, even for social drugs, it looks like we would do better to go deeper.”

Basically, if you believe there’s no real drugs problem in soccer then you’re a real dope.

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