Drugs in football

Like match-fixing, drugs in football is something that many of us are happy to believe is only a problem in other sports. But, also like match-fixing, the time is coming closer when football fans will be forced to face the fact that football involves humans and, like in any other arena of life, there will always be individuals who will use any method available to gain an edge.

Naively I thought that there could be no way that drugs could have a part to play in football – players are subjected to regular testing and, like Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand, are punished severely, for just the crime of missing a test let alone failing one.

History shows us that football has suffered more from players using recreational drugs than performance enhancing ones however it seems, from recent comments, trials and research, that performance-enhancing drugs could be more widespread than previously thought if, for no other reason, than the failure of the tests used to adequately detect banned substances.

Speaking recently about what could be a problem, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said of the current trend to only test urine:

‘Would I support blood testing? Yes I would. Honestly, I don’t think we do enough testing in football. It is very difficult for me to believe that you have 740 players in the World Cup and you come out with zero problems. Statistically, even for social drugs, it looks like we should go deeper.

‘When you have a doping control at Uefa, they do not take blood, they take only urine. I have asked many times in Geneva (for that to be changed). Sometimes you have to wait for two hours after the game (for urine), so blood could be a lot quicker.

‘Uefa are ready to do it, but it poses some ethical problems because everyone has to accept that they will check the blood and not everybody is ready to do that.

‘What I’m concerned about in the trial of the Spanish doctor is that he is in front of justice just to see how he did doping. They are not interested at all in who he has doped.

‘They have found packets of blood but they don’t even ask to whom does that belong. The justice should go deeper. When you look at the functions of this doctor it is quite scary. He was involved in the Olympic team, football team and cycling team.

‘When you look at psychological tests that have been done on  people who are at the top in all sports, ask them if they would take a product that would  guarantee them a gold medal or a world championship, but would mean that they died in the next five years, 50 per cent of people say yes, they would take it.

‘That is quite scary. That is absolutely massive, that is how far people are ready to go to win, in all sports, not just football. If you go to amateur level and do that test, only two per cent say they would take it. We are at the level where people are ready to do anything to win.’

The Spanish doctor that Wenger refers to is Eufemiano Fuentes who is currently at the centre of a doping scandal across a number of sports and who has admitted that some of his clients were footballers.

Speaking at a trial taking place in a Madrid court, Fuentes said

They were sportspeople of all kinds. It could be a cyclist from a cycling team, a footballer from a football team, a tennis player or a boxer. There were also athletes.

Although Fuentes did not provide any names former professional cyclist Jesus Manzano, whistleblower, claimed that he saw at least two well-known players from Spanish clubs as well as a former Spanish international at the Dr’s Madrid clinic.

But the evidence doesn’t end there.

Last month the magazine FourFourTwo ran the results of a poll they had conducted with 100 professional footballer players who play the game in England. The players were allowed to remain anonymous, and, as such, were able to be more honest than they perhaps would have been had they been named.

They found that 13% of those polled admitted that performance-enhancing drugs are used in football with one un-named League Two defender saying

“I’ve never seen someone jacking up but I’ve heard conversations about what goes on in the summer – what you can get away with in the close season.”

Showing the attitude that people do what they can get away with, a Premier League footballer added

“I think there are footballers out there taking performance enhancing drugs. Why wouldn’t that happen? What goes on in the wider world is reflected by what happens in sport. The problem is proving it.”

And it’s not just performance-enhancing drugs although more people seem prepared to believe that recreational drugs are used than face the fact that football could just be like any other sport where people will use any advantage they can to get ahead.

FourFourTwo found that 50% of the players polled agreed that recreational drugs are used by footballers with one SPL defender saying

“Myself, I’ve heard of an end-of-season trip where the manager, chairman and a large number of the players were all doing cocaine at the same time. The chairman was buying it for all the boys. That’s unbelievable!”

Of course, we have to be careful with anecdotes and ‘I’ve heard’ takes which can get exaggerated through time but a midfielder, also from the SPL added about cocaine

“There’s a lot of cocaine about because it leaves your system quickly.”

Depending on the strength of the cocaine taken, the cocaine metabolites  (benzoylecgonine, ecgonine methyl ester and coca ethylene) can be detected in urine up to 22 days after continual use but only 60 hours after a single dose. Even if blood were to be tested, benzoylecgonine will only be detectable for a few hours after it has been taken as it only has a half life of six to seven hours although this can be longer for a more frequent user.

The FA have a policy of keeping the names of players who fail dope tests for recreational drugs a secret as revealed by a Channel 4 documentary back in 2011.

The FA said of this decision

“The FA prohibits all the doping offences listed in the World Anti-Doping Agency code and applies all the sanctions laid down in the code for those offences.

“In addition, the FA, supported by all the football stakeholders, recognise the issues that social drugs may cause and choose to go beyond the Wada code by proactively testing all samples for social drugs, irrespective of whether the tests are conducted in or out of competition. Football is one of the only sports in the UK that ban social drugs at all times, and were the first to do so.

“Any player who tests positive for a social drug out of competition is charged and subject to a sanction which ordinarily includes a suspension from all football activity for a period of up to six months for a first-time offence.

“They are also subject to target testing for a period of two years. The FA do not report the name of the player as this offence is not a Wada Code offence and privacy allows for the player to undergo any necessary rehabilitation and counselling.”

Despite having its image tarnished in many ways, the use of performance enhancing drugs has never been one which modern football has had to deal with.

As more money gets involved and the price of winning becomes every higher, it could only be a matter of time before that is no longer the case.

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Lee Hurley

Writer specialising in good football and bad relationships. If in doubt, assume sarcasm.