The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Luke John Headshot

Under the Needle, but Above Suspicion?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

"It is a subject that I prefer to ignore"

-Vicente Del Bosque, Spanish national football team coach.

It's been a long time coming, but cycling may finally be shifted to the outside lane of public doping scandals. The revelations that may come out of the on-going Operation Puerto doping trial, should the judge permit it, could be a devastating blow for the legitimacy of some of the world's most famous athletes. Alongside concurrent allegations made by a former Real Socieded chairman that the Spanish club were fully paid-up members to the blood-doping regime of the man at the center of that investigation, Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, football in particular looks to be on far from solid ground. It may be now or never for the football world, and other sports outside of cycling, to face up to its demons.

Whether directly football related or some other moral issue surrounding the game, there's little subject matter that the modern football fan has not debated. A prevailing topic is the suppositional death of the 'old fashioned full-blooded tackle', yet the one thing football discussion hasn't tackled itself is the continuing existence of one of football's other old-time traditions: doping. Football indeed has its own sordid history when it comes to doping, the problem has always been there, hidden in plain sight.

The history of performance enhancing drugs in football is a long one. In 1939 the issue was even brought up in the House Of Commons. Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper of the 1950s and 60s, Harry Gregg, said in a BBC interview that he would take the stimulant amphetamine dexadrim (commonly known as speed) before every game. Gregg also claimed there were other drugs taken at other clubs at that time, and that one "famous international would take two pills to every game, he'd take one, and if he wasn't playing as he should be, he'd take the other one". Sir Stanley Matthews spoke in his autobiography how before a game in 1946 he took stimulant pills, that were described as amphetamines. At the time there were no anti-doping laws in football. After the upset in the 1954 World Cup of West Germany beating Hungary, Ferenc Puskas suspected the Germans of doping. Officials took note, and inspected their dressing room after the game. Discarded needles and syringes were indeed found in their dressing room. Pervatin, the methamphetamine given to German soldiers during World War II is suspected, but no drug tests were ever carried out.

In more modern times, numerous high profile players in nearly all of Europe's top leagues have served drugs bans, and one of the continents superpowers, Juventus, was found guilty in 2002 in an Italian court of systematic EPO use during one of the most successful periods in the clubs history. Johnny Hallyday, a French pop star, claimed in a TV interview in 2006 that he "kept himself young" by visiting a Swiss clinic for "blood oxidation treatment", on the recommendation of one of the Juventus players. Hallyday continued to claim that he believed Zidane visited the clinic for the treatment himself "one or two times a year". Hallyday said the procedure involved "drawing out the blood, and the re-oxygenating it".

The problem has been one of public perception. Incredibly, it has never wavered from anything other than apathetic. Records are destroyed, "superhuman" players are rightly lauded, and the possibility of high-profile players doping simply never enters the public consciousness.

Former Manchester United captain Gary Neville recently gave a valuable, highly pragmatic insight on the subject of diving in football, and in turn the general ethos of elite-sportsmen. It seems so apt, and his firsthand account is very much worth relaying here:

"We're here to win football matches; we're here to win Premier Leagues, Champions Leagues, World Cups, European championships. You do whatever it takes to win that game. Referees, organizations and associations are there to judge right or wrong. It's win at all costs. Let the umpires and referees judge. You think about the best cricket teams the Australians - they were horrible. Think about our Olympic cyclist Phillip Hindes, he's taken an "intelligent fall" - they've trained for four years for that one moment - he decides to throw himself off his bike. But he's got a gold medal around his neck. If you are disgusted by Philip Hindes or Gareth Bale - don't watch elite sport. Go sing in a choir or play a recorder. Do something that's got no aggression. Because you'll be disappointed in sports people. I guarantee you they will - because they'll always try to find that edge."

Neville's warning that "you'll be disappointed in sports people" was pointedly blunt, but if anyone should know the competitive nature of modern players it would be Neville, and not many former professionals could elucidate it with any more honesty. He was speaking on diving, but the grander point is that he's talking about players doing something outside of the laws of the game to gain an advantage. Neville also wrote in his autobiography that there were "queues out the door" before a World Cup match with Argentina to take mystery injections from a French doctor employed by Glenn Hoddle, Dr Rougier, after other players had told how they were giving them energy boosts in games. On the issue of diving, Neville was clear - many top players today have no problem with cheating if the ruling bodies don't pull them up on it. The game is more competitive than it has ever been, and players are pushed to their physical limits under constant scrutiny and pressure. The question is, if they will gladly risk public scorn, considerable personal embarrassment and a career long stigma by diving on the pitch in front of millions, what makes us think they wouldn't cheat in private, with barely a risk of getting caught?

Even with the feeble procedures in place to catch blood-dopers, we have still found some, and that may tell us something about how widespread the practice may be. A reminder here that Lance Armstrong never failed a dope test of any kind. Jean-Jacques Edelie, former Marseille midfielder, claimed that "all players, except a furious Rudi Voller, at Marseille took a series of injections before games" and that the practice of doping "took place in all but one of the clubs I played for". Indeed, the midfielder even claimed that on the eve of the Champions League final with AC Milan, the club president, Bernard Tapie, demanded all the players took a banned susbtance. They formed a line, except Rudi Voller, who apprently was beside himself with rage at Tapie. The only Marseille player to ever test positive for a banned substance was Christophe Dugarry.

A brief listing of just some of the higher profile cases brings wonderment that football authorities have done so little to tackle the problem of doping. Not even the systematic and highly evolved doping system of the Germans in the 50s, 60s and 70s and 80s, the Juventus EPO scandal, or the recent bans for players in the limelight such as Edgar Davids, Frank De Boer, Fernando Couto, Jaap Stam, Diego Maradona were enough. Meanwhile, Matias Almeyda alleges Parma were doping him covertly and former French u-21 coach accuses France '98 squad of having highly suspect blood test results. Arsene Wenger has claimed blood tests from players signed from clubs in Europe show clear signs of blood doping, and still, eyebrows in Nyon and Zurich stay firmly at their default height.

Despite considerable historical evidence, FIFA largely assume and have publicly stated they believe that football is relatively free from drug use. Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the P.F.A in England has stated "I'm almost certain we have a clean sheet on performance enhancing drugs".

Yet in 2002, FIFA's Dr Michel D'Hooge, Chairman of FIFA's Medical Commission stated that he believed "high profile stars" across Europe were taking EPO, growth hormones, and steroids. He continued that these players had started "employing their own doctors and medical specialists" to administer the drugs. D'Hooge also warned that doctors known for their doping work with cyclists were "suddenly appearing in football clubs around Europe".

One of these, is notorious US Postal team doctor Luis Garcia Del Moral. It was under the Spaniard Del Moral's medical leadership that Lance Armstrong won 5 consecutive Tour de France titles. Del Moral was given a lifetime ban for his role in the doping regime of Armstrong's US Postal team, and soon his alleged connections to two of Spain's footballing superpowers were being scrutinized. News agency Velonation reported that according the website of the company Del Moral worked for in Valencia, he was listed as a "medical advisor to Barcelona and Valencia". Barcelona were forced to move to distance themselves with Del Moral, saying he had "never been on the staff payroll" but could not guarantee that he had not worked for the club on an "ad-hoc basis". Valencia so far have declined to comment.

Yet in contradiction to D'Hooge's warnings, FIFA's public stance seems to convey the opposite opinion. Indeed, in articles published by FIFA's chief medical officer, they seem positively enthused by their own anti-doping measures. They even went as far as to highlight in a report a few reasons why they believe football is largely drug free. They are:

1 - FIFA's "stringent" drug testing procedures (more on this claim later).

2 - Football players worldwide "understand that prohibited substances in sport will neither improve their physical performance or any specific football skills" (a quite ludicrous claim).

3 - FIFA anti-drug campaigns "have encouraged a drug-free culture in football".

FIFA went on to say that it was "unlikely" that the appearance of a drug-free game could be because of insufficient testing procedures. Again, more on this quite incredible claim a bit further down.

If footballers under the needle are above suspicion, even by the authorities in place for the very reason to stop such things, the shock of the full exposure of modern doping practices is surely to be a blow to the game that many involved with will never recover.

Not even Franz Beckenbauer could pull heads out of the sand. In 1997 he spoke with concern about players injecting themselves with their own blood. Even in a country that had a long and very recent history of uncovered doping practices, Beckenbauer's was simply another voice in the wind. German football, not only in the west, had a long running relationship with the stimulant Captagon in the 70s and 80s.

Yet modern coaches in the German Bundesliga such as Jurgen Klopp and Mattias Sammer have the confidence to announce to the media that doping in football "simply isn't an issue". Why are they so sure? What evidence has football presented that tells us it's cleaner than other sports?

In fact, WADA test records tell us precisely the opposite. In 2011 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recorded 117 Anti-Doping Rule Violations among FIFA-registered athletes -that was the highest number of positive tests in any sport signed up to WADA's procedures.

To the claims by FIFA that they have a "stringent" drug testing policy. Blood control tests for doping have actually been decreased in recent years by FIFA, at the 2006 World Cup FIFA decided to remove all blood control testing for players, even though they began to introduce it in the 2002 World Cup. This is especially worrying considering a German cyclist implicated in the Operation Puerto investigation, Jorge Jaksch, claimed that German police suspected Dr Fuentes of doping players at the 2006 World Cup, but didn't have enough evidence to act. Jaksch also claimed that during his sessions with Dr Fuentes, the doctor "would boast about his work with elite footballers, he was very proud".

In the Premier League, the players are only subject to 2-types of doping control, both are urine samples. One tests for recreational drugs (in which the results of positive tests are often not made public, sometimes players even serve their bans without the public knowing), and another urine test for other banned substances. In 2003, UK Sport's anti-doping agency released figures showing that footballers in England are far less likely to be tested for drugs than athletes in other sports. In Germany, the footballer is tested on average once every three years. In January, German authorities met to decide whether to begin to implement a blood control testing - they decided the few hundred thousand euro cost was "too expensive" for the Bundesliga which has an annual turnover of over two-billion euros. For anything related to blood-doping, urine tests are completely insufficient. It's not inaccurate to say, that in Europe's top leagues, a player engaged in blood doping has slim to zero chance of ever being caught.

Dr.Fuentes, the doctor at the center of the far-reaching Operation Puerto investigation, claimed that around only 30% of his clients were cyclists, and the rest consisted of footballers, tennis players, and boxers. But in the 7770 page Operation Puerto report on the doping practices of Dr Fuentes the only names that were released were that of cyclists.

The reasons for this apparent anomaly are still subject to debate. One of the problems is that at the time Dr Fuentes' clinic was raided in 2006, doping was not an illegal practice in Spain. Sadly, it did seem sport did as much as possible to exploit this, and cyclist Tyler Hamilton's possibly exaggerated assertions that in Spain at that time you "could go around with a syringe hanging from your forehead and no one would bat an eyelid" paint a worrying picture. It's for this legality that quite farcically, Dr Fuentes is not currently being charged in relation to his doping regimes in sport, but for public health issues, for example whether or not he was conducting his doping surgery in a hygienic manner and so forth. The most he can probably expect at the end of all this is a $15,000 fine if found guilty of an unhygienic or unsafe practice.

It was 2006 at the time of this highly publicized investigation of a Spanish doctor accused of widespread doping, and Spain as a were in the midst of a period of sporting success that was giving extreme pride to the nation. Raul and Zidane's Real Madrid were wowing Madrid audiences, and Rafael Nadal was sweeping to victory in the French Open. Critics have used this period of success as a reason for the Spanish court system to seem unwilling to tackle the problem of doping in Spanish sport with any ferocity at this time. The UCI president claimed he only got the names of the cyclists from the Spanish authorities because he "really pushed the issue". Other sports didn't bother. The fact the report only named cyclists angered WADA chief David Howman who commented that "trying to get access to all the evidence and names involved with Dr Fuentes was like banging my head on a brick wall". It took Sepp Blatter 5 months to respond to the news that Dr Fuentes treated footballers at his clinic.

History repeats itself often when it comes to doping in sports. Time and again we ignore the signs when they were first presented to us. Yet here we are, even after the Juventus EPO blood doping scandal and the Dr Fuentes revelations, and the authorities themselves appear to be on sleeping pills.

There are also other numerous blood-treatment procedures present in the game that are not prohibited under European anti-doping laws. "Blood spinning", or "PRP" treatment, has been and is a procedure used at top European clubs such as Chelsea and, more recently, Tottenham. Samples of blood are removed, spun in a centrifuge calcium and enzyme thrombin are added, and the resulting gel-paste is then re-injected into the wound.

World famous Dr. Hans-Wilhelm Muller Wohlfahrt, the 70-year-old long serving head doctor at Bayern Munich and physician to many celebrities, well-known for his unorthodox use of goat blood, is also known as the "pioneer of Actovegin". Actovegin is a substance which increases oxidation of blood and was widely used by Lance Armstrong's US Postal team during the '00 Tour de France. Actovegin is a banned substance in US and elsewhere - but not in Germany. Well-known to anti-doping agencies, the practice of injected athletes with syringes loaded with Actovegin is still highly controversial. Dr. Muller Wohlfahrt has never published any studies related to his use of Actovegin, and the drugs habit of popping up alongside EPO and growth hormone use among other athletes is an uncomfortable one.

As with most doping investigations, Operation Puerto started with a whistle blower Jesus Manzano, a then little known rider for cycling team Kelme, detailed in an interview with a Spanish newspaper the blood-doping regime that was in place at Kelme. That interview eventually led to Dr Eufumiano Feuntes being arrested in 2006. Spanish police seized over 200 "bags of blood" from the cold-storage in Dr Fuentes clinic - each labelled with coded names of the body they came from. Many of the cyclist's blood bags were labelled with the names of their dogs.

Many cyclists implicated in the Operation Puerto are due to be in the witness stand next week to give evidence. Although Judge Santamaria has ruled that the names of other athletes will not be released, in theory there is nothing stopping any of these witnesses to mention names of other athletes that they saw being treated in Dr Fuentes' clinic. Cycling has a right to feel aggrieved at it's unique treatment at the hands of the authorities, many disgraced cyclists are without careers, and have been through many public humiliations while many other sportsmen that they have knowledge of doing the same thing from other sports are freely plying their trade.

As mentioned in the opening paragraph, football club Real Sociedad have found themselves under focus as a result of the Puerto fall-out. Former club Chairman Inaki Badiola has provided apparent evidence that in 2002, the club, under the stewardship of the current head of the Spanish F.A , Jose Luis Astiazaran, paid Dr Fuentes for illicit drugs. Astiazaran has denied the claims. El Pais has published documents showing the name "Asti" has name of Dr Fuentes' club contact. If "Asti" is indeed Astiazaran, this is a scandal that reaches to the very top of the Spanish football pyramid.

There is also a clear but little understood health risk involved with doping. Players' safety could be compromised by the use of PEDs. Spain has particular reason to be mindful of health problems in professional players. In 2010 Miguel Garcia had a cardiac arrest on the pitch in a game against Real Betis. Thankfully, the actions of doctors on the day saved his life. The same cannot be said for 22-year-old Antonio Puerta of Sevilla who died a few days after his heart-attack on the field in 2007, and Dani Jarque, 26 year old Espanyol defender, who tragically died of heart-attack during a pre-season. No suggestion has been made to link these deaths are linked to PEDs, but they remain unexplained.

It often seems that in a large portion of cases, even with blood transfusions, the players are simply unaware of the risks involved, or even of what they are consuming. They often show a striking disregard for their own safety in the promise of increased performance, and coupled with the practices of unscrupulous doctors, the implementation of mandatory blood-testing is crucial in modern sports. Former cyclist Jorg Jaksche recently testified that Dr Fuentes, during his blood transfusions "never spoke to me about the risks involved with the treatments".

The inattention of football in dealing with the problem is surely, eventually, going to end in a sad spectacle for the world's most loved sport. If the football authorities still don't want to tackle the problem even after the revelations of the Dr Fuentes saga, it will also be the most important part of football that will continue to be most cheated, the fans.