Football has long had a drugs problem but is far from alone in this and should learn from other sports, believes Harry Pearson
As I write the raging debate is whether Rio Ferdinand had his mobile turned off or just on silent during his infamous afternoon shopping trip. It seems to me that if you replace the word “mobile” with “brain” then you are getting nearer the measure of the thing. In truth, given his absent-minded performances of late the fact the Manchester United defender should forget a pressing appointment with a flask is not so surprising, nor in a sense was the reaction it provoked – though Gary Neville and co’s adolescent posturing response did achieve what had previously seemed impossible, uniting the nation behind the Football Association.
Not that the FA deserve too much sympathy. For all Soho Square’s rock-solid stance against drugs, their rate of testing remains pathetic. To claim the small number of positives shows English football is clean is like abolishing the police and then pointing to the lack of arrests as proof crime has been eradicated. And the actual testing procedures would raise eyebrows in other sports. The FA entrusts the club doctor with the task of collecting the players’ urine samples. It is hard to imagine many other sports placing such faith in the morals of the medical profession. And if you need to know why, consider the case of Dr Nicolas Terrados, a GP working for the Spanish Once cycling team who was arrested by French police as part of an investigation into the trafficking and trading of performance enhancing drugs in 1998 and subsequently declared persona non grata by the Tour de France organisers.
Of course, in some quarters a feeling still persists that footballers would gain no benefit from systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs. A few years ago in a Channel 4 documentary about high-school gridiron in Texas, a boy recalled how he had asked his coach if he should take steroids. The coach’s response was that it was a personal decision that he left up to the players. However, he added, before they made their judgement the question they must ask themselves was: “Do I want to be faster, stronger, fitter and make a greater contribution to the team, or don’t I?” After the boy had answered that, the coach said, the choice was entirely his own. Would footballers benefit from being stronger, quicker and fitter? Of course they would. Would pressure from coaches and team-mates work on them? What do you think?
Take a look too at how professional football has changed in the past few decades. The average Premiership goalkeeper, for example, is now around three stones heavier than his equivalent of 25 years ago. Strength and physical presence have become essential attributes. The former professional cyclist Paul Kimmage, ghostwriter to Tony Cascarino, noted of his own days’ riding in Europe that he didn’t take drugs so he could win, but just so he could keep up.
Willy Voet is the Belgian whose arrest on the French border with a car boot stuffed with enough drugs to scare Shaun Ryder sparked the clampdown in cycling four years ago. In his book Breaking the Chain Voet gives a detailed account of systematic drug-taking in cycling. In the final chapter he speaks of the widespread use in sport of – totally legal – protein supplements such as Creatine.
The human body can only metabolise so much protein at a time – the rest is flushed, Voet says. If you want to make maximum use of these supplements it is necessary to take something that will speed up the rate at which the body can absorb them. Anabolic steroids will do that. Using a combination of steroids and protein supplements, weightlifters can put on 50lb of muscle in as little as six months. Anabolics are a synthetic form of testosterone. Overuse can heighten aggression to a point where the abuser struggles to control it. As former Mr Universe Steve Michilik noted of his behaviour under the influence of steroids: “My cognitive mind went on like a permanent stroll and I became an enormous, lethal caveman.”
As has been made abundantly clear during the current tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) scandal in athletics, in their own minds sports people never cheat. Especially when it comes to illegal substances. The great Italian cyclist Fausto Coppi was once asked if he ever took drugs. “Only when it is necessary,” he replied.
That professional road-race cycling is brutally hard nobody would question, but its toughness formed the ready-made excuse for the endemic drug-taking that has blighted the sport since the 1950s. As another top cyclist, Jacques Anquetil, infamously remarked: “You don’t ride the Tour de France on mineral water.” Most European cycling fans have always tacitly accepted that the riders took things, as the expression has it, “to ease their suffering”. In football over the past few years (most notably after the last World Cup) we have listened almost non-stop to complaints that top players are playing too much, cannot take it, are burned out. Arsène Wenger even called for the number of games to be reduced on the grounds that if they weren’t players might be forced into taking things just to get them through the season. Like Coppi, Wenger seemed to be saying that footballers would only use drugs if it were necessary. “And how often is it necessary?” Coppi was asked. “All the time,” he replied.
In all probability there is not widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in English football, but psychologically the climate is right for it. The will to win and the team ethic are powerful and at times destructive forces. The number of apparently super-fit former athletes and cyclists who drop dead before they are 50 with swollen hearts, ravaged livers and blood the consistency of porridge are testimony to that. FIFA and UEFA speak of keeping drugs out of football to uphold the good name of the game, but there are far more important reasons than that for the FA to ensure that Rio Ferdinand is the last player to treat the testing procedure so lightly.
From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month