Published on December 21st, 2015 | by Sami Berhane

Doping in football – denial and naivety?

“There’s been no punishment for Spanish clubs and only a few in [Spanish] cycling compared to other parts of the world. It’s quite clear we [football] are in denial and it’s quite clear that Spanish authorities are not being clear about this.”

Spanish football writer and TV pundit Guillem Balague didn’t mince his words when addressing the topic of doping in football at a recent Q&A session held at London College of Communication.

The use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) continues to plague professional sport, as shown by the ongoing saga of Russia’s expulsion from the Olympics and constant questioning of double Tour de France winner Chris Froome’s achievements.

But football always seem to escape the kind of suspicion and scrutiny dished out to sports such as athletics and cycling on an almost daily basis.

‘Move along, there’s nothing to see here,’ is the usual refrain from its governing bodies when the subject of doping rears its ugly head.

And when respected figures within the game speak out about the likelihood of PEDs being used, an embarrassed silence followed eventually by blanket denials usually ensues.

Possible steroid abuse

Recently, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger asserted that he “played against many teams” that had used performing-boosting substances, claiming we live in an age where we “glorify the winner, without looking at means or method”.

“While Wenger might not have the hard evidence to back up his claims, we should not be so naive as to dismiss them out of hand”

Writing on the subject, The Guardian’s chief football writer Daniel Taylor said last month: “In football, we often apply the rule that something cannot be true simply because we do not want it to be true. It is one of the reasons, no doubt, why high up at the World Anti-Doping Agency they think the sport smacks of complacency.”

Taylor cited a recent study, commissioned by Uefa, which showed that 68 out of 879 players taking part in the Champions League, the Europa League and two European Championships, from 2008 to 2013 recorded drug tests that signalled possible steroid abuse.

The Daily Telegraph reported that upon learning these results, Uefa failed to test the ‘B’ samples from the players concerned and that no additional analysis was done to ascertain whether the questionable results might be due to doping.

Taylor, for one, believes while Wenger might not have the hard evidence to back up his claims, we should not be so naive as to dismiss them out of hand.

“However much we might not want to contemplate it, it would be foolish to think the temptation is not there when there is so much money swilling around the game.”

Punished severely

Those within of the governance of the game claim that football is simply too high profile these days for players to risk losing everything by getting caught using PEDs.

Wenger was speaking after Dinamo Zagreb’s Arijan Ademi was handed a four-year ban for failing a drugs test after a Champions League match against the Gunners.

So players are tested, do get caught and are punished severely if found guilty of doping offences.

But the perception remains that if football doesn’t think it has a problem with PEDs, it’s not going to look too hard to find evidence that undermines that position.

Balague’s reference to the Spanish authorities related to the furore surrounding Operation Puerto, the concerted effort launched in 2006 by the police in Spain, to root out and bring to court those guilty of supplying PEDs and supervising their use by athletes across a range of sports.

Dr Eufemiano Fuentes went on trial accused of organising a sophisticated doping network in Spanish sport and was eventually given a one-year suspended prison sentence.

And while those competitors implicated mainly came from the world of cycling, Fuentes said (without naming any names) that footballers had also been among his clients.

Lack of hard evidence

Uefa maintains its anti-doping policies are rigorous. In fact, Wenger’s Arsenal recently had 10 Uefa drug testers arrive at their training ground ahead of the return game against Zagreb.

“There’s no ‘noise’ around doping in football” – Gabriele Marcotti

“I said before that I want better controls – and we got better controls straight away,” said the Frenchman drily, when it was pointed out that the ‘swoop’ came after his criticism of Uefa for allowing Zagreb’s 2-1 win in September to stand despite Ademi’s positive test.

Italian football writer and pundit Gabriele Marcotti is more inclined to give football the benefit of the lack of hard evidence that the sport has any kind of serious doping problem.

Writing in The Herald Scotland, he said: “As the number and type of tests have increased dramatically in the past decade, the positives have dried up. There was a rash of failed drug tests from the mid-1990s – when controls were stepped up – until about a decade ago. Since then, there has been nothing, at least in the top leagues.”

He added: “Most of all, there’s the fact that there’s no ‘noise’ around doping in football. Up until a decade ago, there were were plenty of rumours and accusations and many were later vindicated. Today, there’s tumbleweed.”


Personally, I think the reality lies somewhere between those in denial about doping and critics who claim football must have a drug problem.

Doping is about trying to gain an advantage over opponents because there’s a lot at stake. What sport has as much stake as football? With its mega money transfers and salaries, and status as a truly global business, I find it hard to believe that only a miniscule of players are doping.

“Just because we don’t want something to be true doesn’t mean that it isn’t…”

Those that defend football always make the argument that PEDs are of limited impact because the game is all about skill and technique.

Okay, PEDs won’t make you dribble past three players and smash it in the top corner, but football – and footballers – have changed in recent years, with endurance becoming an increasingly important factor in winning matches, trophies and tournaments.

There has been an increased emphasis on physicality, intensity, pressing and pace. Elite players are now running faster and further in matches, the ball is in play for longer.

The margin between victory and defeat can come down to who has the most stamina, and for that PEDs can give athletes a real edge over rivals.

It would be nice to think that the world’s most popular sport simply doesn’t have any widespread issues with drugs. But just because we don’t want something to be true doesn’t mean that it isn’t…

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