Little or no substance?

Italian football has been hit by accusations of drug abuse. As Richard Mason reports, each new revelation hints at an official cover up

On Monday, September 28th, Mario Pescante, president of CONI, the Italian Olympic Committee, announced his resignation. CONI is, in effect, the government of Italian sport and its president a kind of prime minister. No former president has ever re-signed while in office.

To understand why Pescante took such a drastic step, it is necessary to go back to July 26th, a time  when the papers were full of Tour de France dop- ing stories,  when Roma coach Zdenek Zeman warned that if it was not careful, football would go the way of cycling. He alleged that the administration of “pharmaceutical products” was rife in the game. He was careful not to use the word “drugs” in his comments, nor to say that what was happening was technically illegal. But he made it clear that he felt some clubs were behaving irresponsibly towards their players.

Not surprisingly, Zeman’s outburst produced a reaction, particularly when he named two players, Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro Del Piero, and commented on their surprising muscle development at Juventus. Coach Marcello Lippi was indignant, saying that it implied that Juve’s triumphs over the last four years had been achieved, in effect, by cheating. Juve’s club doctor, Riccardo Agricola, admitted administering various substances to his players, but said he felt that it was his duty if they were to be able to recover their energy in the three or four days between a weekend and a midweek match.

Others, from inside and outside the game, took a different view. Inter coach Gigi Simoni said that if a player was not 100 per cent fit and well, he simply didn’t play, otherwise what was the point of the huge squads most top clubs carry nowadays. Particularly scathing was Professor Silvio Garrattini, head of the prestigious Milan-based Mario Negri Pharmaceutical Research Institute and himself a fan. He said that many of the substances administered were either insufficiently tested, potentially harmful or simply placebos, and that players should only receive medical treatment when they are actually hurt or ill.

Other facts also came to light. Both Vicenza and Empoli employ doctors with pasts in cycling, and in Vicenza’s case a past in which he was suspended for administering illegal substances. And people are beginning to ask why it is that these two essentially limited teams have always seemed so incredibly fit. It was also stated that Franco Scoglia (known as “The Mad Professor”), ex-coach of Genoa among others and now in charge of Tunisia, used to stand in the dressing room doling out all kinds of pills to his compliant players. Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of the revelations is the apparent willingness of players to swallow any pill without question if they think it will improve their chances of playing at the weekend.

None other than Didier Deschamps said (jokingly, he claimed) that joining Juventus meant shortening your career, and another ex-Juve player remarked that the club flogs you to death for three years then sells you off to the highest bidder. All vigorously denied, of course, but where is the long-serving stalwart, the Franco Baresi or Giuseppe Bergomi, of Juve?

Italy has long had compulsory testing of two players per squad at the end of every match. In recent years only five players have been caught including Maradona, Claudio Caniggia, when at Roma, and an unknown Brescia youngster called Edoardo Bortolotti, who went on to commit suicide.

After each match the urine samples are taken to the CONI anti-doping laboratory in Rome. The Italian football federation, FIGC, pays 300-400,000 lire (between £110 and £140) for each sample to be analysed. However, the Turin magistrate conducting the investigation sparked by Zeman’s remarks has discovered that only a minority of samples (as few as ten per cent according to some reports) were actually tested. The excuse given was that the lab did not have enough personnel to analyse all the samples but, if we are to believe former FIGC president Luciano Nizzola, the football authorities were not told and so were paying a lot of money for nothing.

But that was not all. Next it was revealed that the records of tested players had been destroyed before the two years for which they were supposed to be kept had elapsed. Then it emerged that from the beginning of 1997-98 the tests were not carried out according to International Olympic Committee regulations, and so were, in effect, worthless. The Federation of Sports Doctors has now been suspended and a commission set up to try to get the complete truth of what has been going on. Meanwhile, the impression is being created that Italian sport in general, and football in particular, is administered either by men who are blind to what is going on around them or by crooks. 

This is all part of the dispiriting process whereby footballers,whose careers are supposed to be built on the basis of their skill with a ball, are being turned into athletes. It has been worked out that in 1958 Pelé would have had an average of 5.8 seconds to decide what to do when got the ball – now he would have 1.1 seconds. The Italian game, once noted for its technical excellence, is now as physical as any, and played at a speed unthinkable 20 years ago. Every club has a figure known as the preparatore atletico who need not necessarily know anything about the technical side of the game.

A side effect is that it is becoming more and more difficult for a certain type of technically gifted  but physically fragile player to find a regular place in a Serie A team. Once people used to say that the likes of Glenn Hoddle and Alan Hudson were not appreciated in Britain but would be heroes in Italy. Not any more they wouldn’t, unless they were prepared to run their legs off.

The latest development is that a recent case of dop-ing seems to have been hushed up. The match was Udinese v Roma in 1996-97 after which, it is alleged, two Udinese players tested positive. When the technician who discovered this, one Francesca Buiarelli, informed the head of the anti-doping laboratory, she was told to say nothing. She then found that the flask containing the sample for the counter-analysis had been unsealed and was therefore useless. In August, Signora Buiarelli broke the omerta and told the magistrate. It is reported that three more as yet unspecified games from last season are also under investigation.

From WSC 141 November 1998. What was happening this month