Il Drogati: doping and football
Portugal’s national coach Carlos Queiroz was last week banned for six months after ‘disrupting’ the work of anti-doping testers during his team’s preparation for the 2010 World Cup. Whilst it would be wholly spurious and unfounded, if not downright libellous, to link the story to this event, which happened around the same time and was the subject of many rumours, there certainly remain many unanswered questions around the subject of doping in football.
Cycling, one of the continent’s other great loves, was rocked by the revelations that occurred after the arrest of a Belgian by the name of Willy Voet in 1998. All of a sudden cycling fans had to come to terms with the fact that the sport’s top stars were not supermen, they were talented athletes who had learned how to enhance their performances through the use of a series of pharmaceuticals, notably erthyropoietein (EPO) a stimulant which can increase the amount of red blood cells in the body to aid recovery and build stamina. EPO was not detectable through any kind of doping test throughout the 1990s and was thus used widely in cycling during this time, every Tour de France winner from 1996 until 2006 has either admitted to doping or failed a drugs test.
How does this effect football? Well, in the wake of the 1998 cycling scandal Roma manager Zdenek Zemen cast doubt in Italian magazine L’Espresso about the physique of certain Juventus players. Zemen believed that the increase in muscle bulk in players including Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro del Piero was likely achieved through doping, a problem he claimed was rampant in Italian football. The allegations were dismissed by everyone from Marcello Lippi to Vialli himself, who called Zemen a “terrorist”, but the claims were significant enough to be investigated by a Turin magistrate named Raffaele Guariniello.
Guariniello went through medical records, interviewed persons allegedly involved and, after two years, had enough evidence to make a case against Juventus. At the centre of the subsequent trial was the accusation of ‘sporting fraud’ levelled at Juve, the evidence seen in court included pages of stimulants given by the club’s medical staff to players and the revelation that the Turin club had not informed football authorities what exactly the medication was that they had been dishing out, as was the rule in Italy. After two years a sensational verdict was delivered – Juve’s doctor was found guilty of administering a series of illegal substances to footballers at the club, including EPO. In somewhat of a whitewash the court found that Juventus themselves were not guilty of anything as it could not be proved that Juve had ordered the doctor to carry out this doping programme. There then followed a lot of legal wrangling and visits to appeal courts and a new verdict was reached in 2005 – everyone at Juventus was absolved of ‘sporting fraud’ and there was no proof of EPO usage. More trips to appeal courts were made until the whole thing became a mass of confusing verdicts, retractions and reinstatements. David Foot in his superb book Calcio summarises the final verdict on the Juve doping case thusly:
“The Cassation court – the highest in the land – came to a final decision in March 2007. It was a classic Italian judicial compromise, satisfying nobody. In the first place the sentences absolving both [Juve president] Giraudo and [club doctor] Agricola were quashed. But the statute of limitations meant that nobody could any longer be convicted for the crimes of ‘sporting fraud’ and doping. So, in short, the judges had upheld the original sentence (guilty) but, in practice, everybody walked free without a mark on their criminal record.
An incredible turn of events, when you think about it. Essentially, an Italian football team was found guilty of what amounts to running a systematic doping programme and not a thing was done about it. Compare this to the reaction caused by the Festina scandal in cycling in 1998 where several riders, team managers and doctors were given lengthy bans and there was talk of abandoning the entire Tour de France and whether the sport itself could carry on. Even today the effects of Festina are still felt in professional cycling. In the Juventus case Agricola was, amazingly, even allowed to stay on as team doctor.
Outside of Italian football, murmurings about doping have not gone away. In 2004, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger made the claim that “We have had some players come to us at Arsenal from other clubs abroad and their red blood cell count has been abnormally high. That kind of thing makes you wonder”. To go back to cycling again, if any rider is caught with a high level of red blood cells there is no ‘wondering’ involved, it means only one thing – that rider is using EPO and is immediately suspended, pending further investigation. Wenger went on to allege “there are clubs who dope their players without the players knowing”, painting a rather murky picture of an underworld that seems to have gone almost wholly unreported in the world of football.
Football was, again, linked closely to doping in the Operacion Puerto case of 2006. Puerto was the case brought against Spanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes who, from his Spanish laboratory, administered doping products to 200 professional athletes. Although the Puerto case is most commonly linked to cycling this is solely because cycling’s governing body were the only sporting organisation to reveal the names of the riders involved in the case. Of the 200 athletes who were allegedly seeing Fuentes, only 34 of them are cyclists. Fuentes himself has said that alongside cyclists he also worked with tennis stars and footballers, cyclist Jesus Manzano also claimed that he had seen several well-known La Liga players also visiting Fuentes whilst he was there.
Once again, despite the highly suspicious nature of the links between footballers and Fuentes, nothing was ever done. Cycling remains the only sport to have named and subsequently banned those involved in Operacion Puerto, the other sporting governing bodies are, presumably, just sitting on the list of names they have, content not to take any action at all.
One of the main issues here is whether or not the doping histories of cycling and football run parallel. The Juventus case seems to prove that doping was happening at at least at one club in the 1990s, at the same time that it was taking a stranglehold over professional cycling. If you are prepared to believe that Juventus had a doping programme then it’s not too much of a stretch to believe this may have been the case at Italy’s other top clubs, if not the norm around the footballing world. Cyclings bid to clean itself up after the dog days of the 1990s took a wrong turn when the more sophisticated methods of blood doping and avoiding the EPO test came in to play in the early 2000s. Floyd Landis’ allegations against the US Postal cycling team point to a world of transfused blood and even more sophisticated, widespread, systematic doping, could football have used the same methods to avoid failed doping tests? It is all very much speculation, but the circumstantial evidence from Operacion Puerto at the very least hints that football is not as clean as we’d like to think it is.