For all of the problems within the game that generate debate amongst players, fans and pundits alike, whether it be diving, poor officiating, favouritism shown to bigger clubs or corruption among organising bodies; the biggest issue that football may currently have is the one that nobody really ever talks about. That issue is doping. If one simply takes a common sense approach to the topic, it really is hard to believe that in a world where scandals regarding drug cheats in various sports like athletics, cycling and recently tennis are frequently unearthed, then how does the biggest sport of all remain largely untouched? For all of the money and high-stakes that these sports contain, they are all dwarfed by football which has a global reach that no sport can really match.
Of course there are some procedures in place to catch anyone on a banned substance. However, it has been slow to be introduced over the years. In much the same way that organising bodies like FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) have only recently and crucially, only partially approved the use of technology to help officials when making certain key decisions; legislation to stop doping has hardly been at the forefront of their agendas. It was only in the build-up to the 2006 World Cup that FIFA ratified the WADA (World Anti-Doping Association) code, instituting a hard line approach to punishing drug cheats with a mandatory two year ban given to first-time offenders. What is shocking is that despite all of their resources, football was the last Olympic sport to do so. Rather than leading the crusade against doping, football lagged behind the likes of canoe, water polo and table tennis. This is not meant to disrespect these sports but surely football has had far more financial clout to put in place a rigorous set up to weed out such indiscretions long before such smaller sports were even able to attempt to do so.
There have been some positive steps in recent years. Blood doping has finally been introduced alongside the biological passport in the lead up to the 2014 World Cup. The biological passport is the most effective tool in combating drug abuse as it is an electronic record which tracks each individual’s drug results over time and spots any unusual trend as it emerges. This trumps the traditional method of hoping that on the exact day of a drug test, a guilty party will have it in their system. As we have seen across a number of sports, frequent testing does not guarantee an athlete is clean as evidenced by the long-time passing of drug tests by the now disgraced figures of Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones. It is still incredible, however, how lax football has seemed to be in addressing the topic even in the last ten years. Only a handful speak out about their experiences, but it makes for stark reading. Joey Barton reflected in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, that he had ‘only ever taken a urine sample from me.’ Similarly, our very own Richie Sadlier gave an interesting account on how a tablet that he had been ordered to take all season turned out to be banned. He was never caught but wonders just how much of an affect it had upon his body as this coincided with what he felt was his ‘best season ever.’ It really does stand to reason that drugs such as HGH (Human Growth Hormone) may be rife within football as in much the same way that they notoriously helped cyclists during the 1990s and 2000s, the boosts it would give to endurance and recovery time could act as a major leg up on the competition especially in this era of 50 plus game seasons at the highest level.
Over the years the only really prominent figure to consistently speak out about doping in football has been Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger. He does not mince words on the subject as he has said that he has ‘played against many teams’ that use performance enhancing drugs. He clearly feels this is also not just the case of only minnows engaging in this practice as an act of desperation in order to compete against the top teams as he has also said that the sport is ‘full of legends who are in fact cheats.’ His continued attempts to really get a dialogue going within the footballing community are admirable as there always seems to be an unwritten rule in football and indeed, across many sports, that you do not give too much away to the press and fans as regards the inner workings of a football club. Just look at how hesitant sportspeople typically are to give anything but cliche-ridden answers in interviews, often giving the impression that they are merely doing it out of a contractual obligation rather than really expose the truth to viewers. The sad likelihood is that with the pressure placed upon these players to perform at a high level so often, many probably choose to partake in illicit substances in order to fuel their bodies and careers.