The high number of drug-test failures in Italy compared to England is mainly the result of the seriousness with which the issue is treated there, believes  Gabriele Marcotti

The funny thing about nandrolone is that it has been around for a long time. A team-mate on my university rugby team took it for three years. No, he wasn’t a drugs cheat: as a child, he was frail and underdeveloped, so his doctor put him on a nandrolone course. Whether or not he knew (or cared) at the time that it could reduce his libido, increase his risk of developing tumours and potentially lead to “testicular atrophy” is unclear. Either way, in the 1980s, before serious drug-testing, its use was widespread in a variety of sports, including football. Its benefits – increased concentration, increased aggression, increased lean muscle mass – were seen by some as worth the risk of a couple of shrunken balls.

Italy is a country where medicine and football have often gone hand in hand, which has been both good and bad. On the plus side, Serie A hasn’t had too many cases of £30,000-a-week strikers aban­doned to the whims of unaccredited witch-doc­tor physio­therapists, top-flight clubs with medical facilities straight out of Rwanda and internationals whose careers were ended because they were literally carried off the pitch, rather than removed on a stretcher, by well-meaning but ignorant physios. On the other hand, too many clubs have doctors who administer drugs in industrial quantities (an Italian prosecutor once described Juv­entus’s heavy use of prescription pharmaceuticals, including psycho­tropic drugs, as “legalised doping”).

Of course, the Italian football authorities and footballers were not entirely blind to this. Which is why, in the summer of 2000, Serie A’s al­ready tough drug-testing policy was further intensified, with two players from each squad drawn at random to be tested after every match. Contrast this with England where, until the ar­rival of Mark Palios at the Football Association, testing seemed like something of an after-thought.

In theory the tests in England were random, with inspectors showing up un­announced at training grounds. In practice, they were a distinct soft touch. The FA won’t reveal exactly how many tests they conduct, but the anec­dotal evidence is far from reassuring. One Prem­­iership player I spoke to wasn’t tested once in seven seasons in England. Another was regularly informed in advance by his club of when the inspectors would be coming round (funnily enough, on the appointed day several players would be excused from training). A third told me how, on one occasion, the inspectors showed up on a Monday when the team were playing away from home: the only guys around were injured players who had not made the trip.This type of Key­stone Kops approach may explain why, to this day, there has been just one positive nandrolone test and a handful of positive results for recreational drugs in English professional football.

In Italy, on the other hand, there have been 14 positive nandrolone tests in Serie A and B alone, plus 40 or so “borderline” cases (instances where the values were suspiciously high but not over the legal limit). Strangely, however, all but three of them (Parma’s Manuele Blasi and Internazionale’s Mohamed Kallon, both of whom tested positive this October, and Napoli’s Igor Shalimov in 1999) came in the same 13-month spell, from September 24, 2000 (Pescara’s Alessio Da Rold) to October 21, 2001 (Brescia’s Pep Guardiola). Among those getting caught were household names such as Juventus’s Edgar Davids and La­zio’s defensive duo of Jaap Stam and Fernando Couto.

All received rather light sentences (at least com­pared to other sports), ranging from four to eight months (Blasi and Kallon’s cases are still under review), but the Italian FA promised fire and brim­stone at the next test. The threat of heavy punishment may explain why the positive tests have dried up. Or the explanation may be rather more mundane.

Two and a half years ago, at the height of the nandrolone scare, 15 or so Italian internationals led by Christian Vieri and Alessandro Nesta cornered Italian FA officials at Milan’s Linate airport, shortly before flying off to an international match. The players threatened to take action, possibly even strike action (sound familiar?) if something wasn’t done. Their fear, which in retrospect seems rather founded, was that the clubs might be administering banned substances unbeknown to the players. They demanded guarantees that, should a player test positive, the clubs would be called to answer as well. Which makes good sense. It’s difficult to believe that players snoop around look­ing for banned substances without the knowledge of their coaches and team doctors. Whatever responsibility exists must be borne equally.

To their credit, Serie A clubs responded by instituting private tests, in addition to those carried out by the Italian FA. This wasn’t necessarily done out of altruism or love of fair play but rather for their own protection. The FA is about to stiffen testing, introducing blood sample analysis in addition to the urine tests. Blood testing is far more thorough and covers a longer period of time. Whatever the motivation, the number of positive or even “borderline” test results have slowed to a trickle.

Mysteriously enough, despite FIFA and UEFA’s chest-beating, the length of bans seems to have shrunk. When Napoli’s Shalimov tested positive for nandrolone in 1999, he was slapped with a two-year ban which effectively ended his career. Yet when Frank de Boer turned up positive while on international duty, which meant it was up to UEFA to punish him, he got away with a mere two and a half months. Absurd? You bet. One international defender fails to produce a sample, does so two days later, turns up clean and the moralising British press want hims banned for the maximum two years. Another international defender tests positive with ridiculously high nandrolone levels and the governing body of European football give him ten weeks. Fair? You be the judge.

Perhaps the best way to deal with the problem is to punish clubs for positive tests. After all, they’re the ones who nanny players. And when I say “punish” I mean “punish”, ie dock points and levy seven-figure fines. This would lead them to institute their own tests alongside the FA ones (after all, they’re the ones who would be held responsible), increasing the overall scrutiny. It’s a move which would prove unpopular with the clubs – who, after all, exert considerable influence over the FA – but, if the spectre of drugs is to be banished, it’s the most logical way to go.

From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month

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