Bitter pills to swallow

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When it comes to doping, soccer has somehow been Teflon despite a history intertwined with drug use and a present of much greater rewards and much greater secrecy, writes Ewan MacKenna

Do you believe?

In terms of all sports, it’s the alpha and omega of questions right now. Except for one that is, for soccer has become literally too big to fail. Last weekend, the Sunday Times ran a story with an unlicensed Irish doctor talking about his doping of, amongst other athletes, Premier League footballers. The report lacked the paper’s usual ruthless dismantling of the rusted metal and rotten wood as it had done with athletics and cycling, but it did push an important conversation.

Do you believe in soccer?

Take a look at the days that followed. On Monday, a manager that had been part of the Juventus side shown up, at best, as a team that used legal drugs for illegal reasons and, at worst, linked to EPO was named Chelsea manager. By Tuesday, an ex-player who once tested positive and been banned for nadralone took Munich a step closer in Europe. Come Wednesday, a legend who French singer Johnny Halliday claimed recommended a Swiss clinic for “blood oxidation treatment” as he did it “one or two times a year” himself had his worst managerial moment.

None of that is to act as jury, assign guilt or suggest continuation. But it is to look at murmurs and more around key figures and, as an extension, the sport itself as for too long soccer has been given a free pass.

A couple of weeks back, a conversation was struck up with a former athlete. She recalled how a teammate who was later caught for EPO was using the substance long before his positive. She realised when he’d get up after four hours sleep and start skipping in the middle of the night, trying to turn his blood from a soup created by the low heart rate of rest back into liquid. He was just trying to make an Olympics but if he was willing to risk career and life for that, why would footballers not risk it when the rewards are far greater? Don’t kid yourself, soccer doesn’t have higher morals. Besides, history shows those in the sport have always risked it and the evolution of drugs can be traced through the evolution of soccer.

As early as 1939 the issue was brought up in the House of Commons while in the subsequent years Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg said he would take the stimulant speed with Stanley Matthews admitting to amphetamines. After the 1954 World Cup final Ferenc Puskas even suspected Germany of doping and when officials inspected their dressing room there were discarded syringes on the floor. It was said by some to be Pervatin, the methamphetamine given to soldiers during World War II.

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Later still Franz Beckenbauer said in 1977 the secret to his fitness was re-injecting his own blood and Harald Schumacher in his autobiography said some of his team were world champions in “strengthening chemistry” with one Bayern player known as “the walking pharmacy”. Little wonder that when Berlin’s Humboldt University recently studied West German soccer, they suggested strong evidence of a systematic doping programme being established in the 1970s.

It wasn’t just the Germans though for it was universal. The late Inter player Ferruccio Mazzola mentioned in his life story how Helenio Herrera doped their European dominating team in the 1960s and how if they spat out pills he’d put them in their coffee. “I believe amphetamines,” he wrote. Ajax too received pills from a doctor the following decade with Barry Hulshoff saying they called them chocolate sprinkles. “You felt very strong and never were out of oxygen,” he recalled. Others backed him up.

But while in many cases there were no anti-doping laws to break then, there have long been morals which can distinguish between right and wrong where legality can’t. It’s why, after knocking Eamonn Coghlan of the podium at the 1980 Olympics, Kaarlo Maaninka threw his bronze medal in a lake as he admitted blood doping. However few footballers have ever had such an epiphany.

Even in the modern era when such methods were outlawed, it has just driven them deeper underground. Tony Cascarino and Chris Waddle have both spoken of suspicious injections at Marseille in the early-90s with defender Jean-Jacques Eydelie claiming a systematic doping programme. Bernardino Santi was fired as Brazilian doctor after saying Ronaldo’s injuries were due to the fact his muscles grew to the point his tendons couldn’t sustain them after steroids. Gary Neville’s autobiography talks of “queues out the door” before England played Argentina in 1998 to take unknown injections that gave energy boosts. Meanwhile Jean-Pierre Paclet, who worked as a French under-21 doctor, claimed his nation’s World Cup-winning team had suspect blood results.

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How many of those teams have been discredited though? How many have had the sheen of glory smeared? None, for soccer operates in a sphere of easy arguments and soft denial and uses libel to protect itself rather than basic logic to protect its integrity.

The idea about the lack failed tests only stresses how far testing is behind. Besides, money in soccer is unmatched meaning the walls of secrecy are higher, the will lower, the benefits greater, the potential losses larger and access tiny. Of course it’s still a sport that looks down on those where there’s a more direct link between power and results however stamina can equal EPO, strength can equal anabolic steroids, recovery can equal testosterone, agility can equal stimulants. As convicted blood doper Stefan Matschiner, who was involved in athletics and cycling in the 2000s, explained of soccer, “It’s completely obvious that, if in the 80th or the 85th minute you have the same co-ordination abilities as in the third minute, because you’ve been treated with substances that improve the oxygen rates in your blood, then you have an advantage against your opponents”.

Yet the roadblocks to this reality are everywhere. At the trial into Juventus’ activities in the early 2000s, leading haematologist Giuseppe d’Onofrio testified he was “practically certain” EPO was used, a top pharmacologist Eugenio Muller said the club had systematically supplied players with prescription-only drugs with no therapeutic justification while police described the club as having a medical stash similar to a hospital. But the case was eventually quashed because the statute of limitations had run out and few cared. Just as few cared when former US Postal doctor Luis Garcia Del Moral was working with Barcelona with the club admitting he may have on an “ad-hoc basis”. Nor did they when Pep Guardiola blamed the nandralone in his system on a contaminated supplement only for the same doctor at his then-club Brescia to be his chief when managing the Catalans.

Indeed few care that now in a Spanish warehouse the blood bags of soccer players are awaiting destruction if a judge’s original decision isn’t overruled. That’s a case that began with former cyclist Jesus Manzano seeing footballers the clinic of Eufemiano Fuentes. The now convicted doctor said, “If you give me a list I could tell you who corresponds to each code on the blood packs”. But the judge ruled he only need name cyclists and that data from Fuentes’ computers was inadmissible in order to protect privacy. This after Fuentes had allegedly told an informant he’d information that could strip Spain of its World Cup and European Championships.

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“It is a subject that I prefer to ignore,” noted former Spanish manager Vicente Del Bosque of the subject. And he’s not alone with the likes of Jurgen Klopp saying doping isn’t an issue. But in 2002 Dr Michel D’Hooge, Chairman of FIFA’s Medical Commission, said “high-profile stars” across Europe were taking EPO, growth hormones, and steroids, and that doctors who’d worked with disgraced cyclists were “suddenly appearing in football clubs”. And by 2013 Wada said the game’s testing procedures are not rigorous enough.

So do you still believe? The real question is why would anyone.

Sunday Business Post
10 April, 2016

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