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Football’s dirty secret: ignorance is not bliss when it comes to doping

And so it begins.

After decades of anecdotal evidence — think star players spotted at renowned doping clinics, rogue doctors bragging about trophies their pharmacology has won for club and country, major European titles being won by players with blood as thick as golden syrup — there is finally cold, hard evidence to suggest that maybe, just maybe (whisper it quietly, for many don’t want to hear) football has a doping problem.

A report by The Sunday Times yesterday revealed details of a study commissioned by Uefa which examined more than 4,000 urine tests from top-level European players between 2008 and 2013, which found that 7.7pc of the 879 players tested had “atypical samples” that indicated the possible use of anabolic steroids.

This means, in short, that 68 players across the Champions League, Europa League and European Championships between 2008 and 2013 were most likely knocking back some good ol-fashioned ‘roids — and that’s not even opening up the poisonous can of worms that is blood-boosting.

Drugged up: Diego Maradona tested positive for five banned stimulants at the 1994 World Cup, but is still considered a legend of the sport.

Drugged up: Diego Maradona tested positive for five banned stimulants at the 1994 World Cup, but is still considered a legend of the sport.

The amount of players facing sanction for these atypical findings: zero.

This is because the testing was conducted anonymously and was purely for research purposes at a time Uefa was deciding whether they should follow the lead of other sports and introduce the biological passport as a tool to catch cheats.

Uefa, moving swiftly to make sure this storm was kept in a teacup, said it was “impossible to draw definitive conclusions from one study”, adding that results might have been affected by other factors such as alcohol.

Leaving aside the inconvenient truth that the amount of top-level footballers who consume alcohol in sufficient quantities to severely skew their testosterone levels is somewhere between few and none these days, Uefa’s response is hardly surprising, for football, perhaps more than any other sport, has a long and proud history of maintaining a blissfully ignorant attitude when it comes to doping.

Heads in the sand

Mock his managerial ability all you want, but one man who could never be accused of being blind to the reality is Arsene Wenger, who said in 2013 that the sport is full of drug-fuelled “legends who are in fact cheats”.

If you need an example of that, consider the following list of champions and think about your first reaction when you read their names: Diego Maradona, Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, Edgar Davids, Justin Gatlin.

All reached the top of their chosen sport. All are proven drug cheats, but be honest, when it comes to Maradona — and, possibly, Davids — there wasn’t that same instant ‘cheat’ reaction you felt for the others; after all, their brilliance couldn’t only be explained by a cocktail of chemistry, right?

It’s true, to an extent. In a skill game, doping is clearly of assistance — an extra tool in the armoury which improves speed, strength, concentration and powers of recovery— but it’s not the same kind of nuclear game-changer it is in a sport like cycling or running where the sole measure of success is reduced to a single measurement of time and speed in a certain direction.

Even still, there is a chasm of difference in how dopers in field sports are perceived compared to athletes and cyclists who cross the line.

Lingering questions: Pep Guardiola tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone in his playing days at Brescia.

Lingering questions: Pep Guardiola tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone in his playing days at Brescia.

Take, for instance, the curious case of Pep Guardiola, the current manager of Bayern Munich, formerly of Barcelona, who tested positive for nandrolone during his playing days in Brescia and was handed a four-month ban.

Guardiola protested his innocence from the start and was eventually cleared by the Italian FA in 2007, though Italian anti-doping officials re-opened the case in 2009, feeling Guardiola had a serious case to answer, but their arguments were dismissed by a tribunal.

At the time, Guardiola was on his way to creating one of the great footballing dynasties at Barcelona, a club which seemed to have no concerns about his murky past when hiring him as a coach in June 2007, five months before he was initially cleared by the Italian FA.

“You guys take nothing in comparison to footballers”

Which brings us to the dodgy dealings of Dr Luis Garcia del Moral, who, according to the website of the company he worked for in Valencia, was employed “as a medical adviser for various football teams, most notably Barcelona CF and Valencia CF”. Barcelona said he was never on their payroll, but admitted it’s possible that he worked with their medical department on an ad hoc basis.

You may remember his name, for it’s one of the most infamous in the history of sports doping. Del Moral was a key figure in the doping network of the US Postal cycling team between 1999 and 2003, helping Lance Armstrong and his teammates soar their way up the mountains of France for many years before he was eventually banned by the US Anti-Doping Agency in 2012.

Speaking to one of Armstrong’s fellow dopers/teammates Tyler Hamilton — no doubt around the time he was administering him with any number of banned substances Del Moral reportedly told him: “you guys take nothing in comparison to footballers”.

Think about that for a moment: Del Moral was telling one of the dirtiest athletes in the world that his well-documented doping regime was “nothing” compared to the footballers he had worked with in Spain.

Shady customer: Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, whose doping ring was busted during Operation Puerto.

Shady character: Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, whose doping ring was busted during Operation Puerto.

However it is not Del Moral, but another Spanish doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, who perhaps holds the keys to the kingdom of corruption and cheating when it comes to doping in football.

Fuentes was actually the one who took over the responsibility of being the brains of Hamilton’s doping operation when he moved on from US Postal to Team CSC in 2003, but the doctor’s deeds were not confined to cyclists, something which emerged years later when the covers were blown off his network during Operation Puerto.

It began with the revelations of banned cyclist Jesus Manzano, who detailed in a 2004 interview his network of doping suppliers, which included Fuentes. In subsequent interviews, Manzano said he had seen “well-known footballers” from La Liga visit the offices of Fuentes.

In one of the raids conducted on a residence belonging to Fuentes, 1,000 doses of anabolic steroids were found. The guy was truly a one-stop shop for all doping requirements, regardless of sport.

Multiple cyclists were named and banned as a result of the investigation such as Ivan Basso, Frank Schleck and Jan Ullrich yet somehow, the footballers, tennis players and athletes Fuentes admitted he also worked with escaped the same fate.

In 2013, when the trial got underway, Fuentes offered to reveal the names of all of his clients and tell authorities who each blood bag found at his clinic — there were a whopping 211 of them — belonged to.

Julia Santamaria, the presiding judge, told Fuentes he was only required to name the cyclists implicated and the judge — in what is still one of the most bizarre decisions in the history of anti-doping — ordered the blood bags to be destroyed.

That same year, Spain’s national team manager Vicente del Bosque — who led them to World Cup glory in 2010 and a European Championship in 2012 — didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

“Call me naive, but I’ve never seen doping in football,” he said, “and I don’t believe I ever will.”

I’d call him naive. Would you?

Decathlon world record holder Ashton Eaton
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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