Football’s Dirty Secret: Does it have a drugs culture?


Madrid’s Provincial Court is to release its verdict this month on the appeals lodged against the destruction of the almost 200 blood bags which have been stored in Madrid as part of the Operación Puerto anti-doping probe.

The decision to destroy evidence was baffling at the time and it was suspicious that it was only cyclists that suffered repercussions, given that the doping doctor, Fuentes, frequently worked with footballers, tennis players and boxers also.

Spanish football teams in particular are alleged to have worked with him. In 2013, Fuentes issued a series of questions he might be prepared to answer. One of the questions was: “How I prepared a team to play in the Champions League”. The time which is being examined coincides with the most successful period in Spanish football history.

You might say that football does not have a doping culture. It is a skill-based game, unlike cycling and athletics, and doping would only take you so far when you consider factors like tactics, team cohesion and technical skill.

“What about speed, strength, stamina and power?” Richie Sadlier writes in the Sunday Independent. “Are these not essential in the modern game? ‘Doping won’t improve your first touch,’ they’ll add. Maybe not, but if your opponent gets to the ball before you that won’t matter”.

It is also clear that there is precedent for systematic doping. Football has a dirtier history than you might think. The history of doping stretches back to the 1954 World Cup final.

Hungary faced the hosts West Germany in the final. The ‘Magical Magyars’, as they were affectionately known, went into the final on a 31 game unbeaten run. During that time, they famously thrashed England twice and won gold at the Olympic Games.

They had brought their form into the World Cup also, comfortably dispatching all opponents en route to the final. Most notably, they had beaten West Germany 8-3 in the group stages. While Germany had rested players for that match, there is little doubts that they were big, big underdogs for the final.

West Germany won the final 3-2, upsetting the Hungarians. There are some plausible reasons for the shock, the rainy conditions suited the German game and Hungary’s star player Ferenc Puskas was not fully fit after an injury earlier in the tournament.

What might be a more plausible reason is that they were doping. The German team physician admitted that the players were injected before the final but claims it was only Vitamin C. Further studies suspect that they were loaded with methamphetamine.

The ‘Miracle of Bern’ was seen as a turning point for post-war Germany, a boost for a country was still suffering from the war. In reality, there was probably no such miracle and one of the best teams that the world has seen, the Hungarians, were denied a crowning moment.

To take a more modern case, we need to look no further than Juventus in the 1990s. The use of EPO was rampant in sport in that decade.

As an endurance drug, it was known for giving athletes that famous ‘second wind’. It made them seem heroic, achieving unbelievable feats of endurance. In reality, as seen no clearer than with Lance Armstrong and the US Postal team, it was not heroic. It was the drugs that were doing the work.

In 2004, Juventus doctor Riccardo Agricola was sentenced to 22 months in prison after being found guilty of providing EPO. He was in charge of medical practices from 1994 to 1998, a period during which they were Italian champions three times and Champions League winners in 1996.

This came after Lecce manager Zdenek Zeman said that Italian football needed “to get out of the pharmacy,” and referred specifically to Juventus. He argued that players such as Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluca Vialli had made inexplicable physiological progress.

It was hardly surprising then when a series of players tested positive for doping in 2001 in Serie A. Among the star players that were banned for drug offences included Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids and Pep Guardiola.

However, unlike sports like athletics and cycling, there have never been any considerable calls for Juventus to be stripped of their titles from this era.

While cyclists and runners are rightly castigated for doping, we never see Pep Guardiola labelled as drugs cheat in football for example.

Richie Sadlier thinks that doping exists in football too and only the deluded think otherwise. Arsene Wenger believes that the authorities could go a lot further to test players. His team were victims to a doped player earlier this year when Dinamo Zagreb’s Arijan Ademi tested positive after the Champions League game.

Arsenal lost the game 2-1 and it nearly knocked them out of the competition. Unsurprisingly the result stood, despite the fact Zagreb were essentially playing with an illegal player.

It seems clear that failing a drugs test does not carry the same stigma as other sports. Football is the world’s most popular sport and has riches and marketing other sports could only dream of.

Therefore, it does not want the boat to be rocked on this front. But court proceedings in Spain could unearth a seedy underbelly that it has tried its best to conceal.

David Gorman