Early Doors

Football must step up in the fight against doping

Early Doors

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The news that Asafa Powell and Tyson Gay have both failed doping tests sent shockwaves through athletics.

It now means that pretty much all of history’s top sprinters, times-wise, have been tainted by doping in some way. Only Usain Bolt stands tall, literally and metaphorically, as a genuine freak of nature, as he boasts a classic 400m runner’s physique but is blessed with the ability to start like a man five inches shorter.

After the disappointment fades, a feeling of vindication will resonate around athletics. Like cycling, its doping culture was deeply ingrained, highly-organised and endemic. There is no room for error, and it appears the testers are moving almost as quickly as the privately-employed scientists and ‘doctors’ who are constantly at the forefront of developing low-risk methods to boost performance, namely through barely-detectable chains of masking agents.

In recent months there has been much soul-searching in another major professional sport, tennis. The likes of Andy Murray and Roger Federer have been outspoken in their criticism of the ITF’s anti-doping policy, which is regarded as lax and under-funded in relation to the importance of the sport.

By comparison, football’s fight against doping has been largely limited to whispers and the occasional minor professional failing to get his measures right.

In terms of sheer numbers of tests, football is head and shoulders above the rest – as it should be.

In competitive terms, football is the most widely-played sport in the world. There are 1.4 million registered players in England, 6.3m in Germany, 2.1m in Brazil. The beautiful game is structured, formalised and governed from top to bottom, from Premier League to Sunday League, from the lush pitches of the higher echelons of the sport to the gravelly dustbowls of local amateur kickabouts.

In the UK – which has a far less tolerant approach to doping than many other sporting cultures – 1,278 footballers were tested in the 2011-12 season. In a pool of 1.4m registered players, that works out as a one in 1000 chance of a player at any level being hauled in for a post-match leak. In one of the stronger countries in anti-doping terms.

Some of you may well have had to step aside after a low-grade weekend match, where half-time oranges and tins of Carling are the closest any would get a nutritional supplement on a Saturday. I am a terrible footballer, yet back in the early 2000s, fellow players in minor college leagues were occasionally asked to submit a urine sample, on the basis that a local FA-registered referee had been assigned to the game, and that random tests were random tests.

What is the point of that? Clearly football’s authorities need to take a more targeted approach to flushing out the cheats. Outside England’s top five divisions, there is little or no point in extending the randomised nature of anti-doping procedures. And let’s not get started on Spain, where the judge trusted with overseeing the Operacion Puerto scandal inexplicably ordered all non-cycling samples collected be destroyed and not submitted as future evidence in retrospective cases.

We have all heard arguments from haggard ex-pros claiming that doping doesn’t exist in football, because no PED can teach you how to control a ball. Which is patently nonsense, as if technique was the sole parameter in footballing success, Lee Trundle would have won a Ballon d’Or, and England would never be allowed near a pitch, let alone a World Cup.

Marginal gains yield exponential results at the top end of any sport – the most successful (purportedly) drug-free cycling and endurance running projects operate along the basis that the marginal gains cheats created with the needle should be created by fair means. David Brailsford’s Team GB and Team Sky success, and Nike’s Project Oregon are clear cases in point. Instead of injecting sportsmen with EPO, they must manage their nutrition like they possess borderline eating disorders, sleep in altitude chambers and (as Chris Froome said) on volcanoes, dedicate every waking and sleeping hour to training and recovery.

The modern-day football circus demands multiple domestic and continental competitions, international friendlies, qualifiers and tournaments, and the money-spinning pre-season tours of emerging markets. Some players feature in up to 70 games a year, mostly played at a frantic pace, and always played under an incredible spotlight that leads to people forming “Moyes out” groups after a random friendly defeat.

That particular group may have been ironic in its creation, but it symbolises the expectation placed on footballers who – as athletes primarily selected for their technical abilities – will feel the physical burden of their continually increased exertions.

And there have been instances of widespread doping in the recent past, highlighted when a rash of Serie A stars were found to have taken nandrolone, possibly without their knowledge, which hints at a wider problem in the game. Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and a certain Mr Guardiola fell foul of renewed testing for that - though Bayern Munich's new coach was later cleared on appeal.

For many drug cheats, doping is not necessarily used to make them go faster, harder or longer – it is a tool to aid recovery between injury, following gruelling tournaments or particularly hectic schedules. A little boost here and there so the star players can solider on through a season that never seems to end.

And these are precisely the clubs that federations and associations hold in thrall, tip-toeing around their whims and desires at the expense of the global game.

For change to happen anti-doping in football must be centralised globally, before being localised through affiliated organisations that are fully independent to the leagues and federations concerned.

Anti-doping has existed in organised sport since the 1920s, got relatively serious in the 1960s but was hamstrung in the 70s and 80s by a lack of testing technology to keep up with drug development. Then there was the state-sanctioned doping of East Germany and others to limit testing efficiency.

Cycling took the lead in fighting doping because it was ultimately forced to by the governments of the nations that host its two biggest races – France, and Italy, where the non-sporting authorities (and popular newspapers) took a keen criminal interest.

Athletics’ anti-doping crusade was also precipitated by independent societies, such as the IOC, who wanted changes after a cycling death at the 1960 Olympic Games.

In sport, widespread trends regarding doping are often state-driven, for better (France, the United Kingdom for their anti-doping stances) or for worse (many former Communist countries and, if you argue that the state and private sector are inextricably linked, the United States).

The state has long used sport to its own ends – from promoting healthy living to generating income through exporting a sports product. But football, more than any other sport, is of immense value to the state, monetarily and as a means of moulding society. Can states risk the economic downturn that would follow a major doping scandal? Spain’s, apparently, cannot.

It would be folly to presume that a doping culture doesn’t exist in football. It would be negligent not to target the top clubs – those with the need, means and desire to dope.

Until an aggressive, policy-led approach in football exercises control, the spectre of doping will continue to taint the world’s most popular sport. It needs some brave people to take it on.

Reda Maher - on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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