By Graham Ruthven
"Doping is a problem," said World Anti-Doping Agency president Craig Reedie ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics. "I think we can win battles, but I question whether we can ever win the war." Indeed, there is much ground to be made up in the fight against doping in sport.
When Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey that his premiership as the greatest cyclist in history had been underpinned by the use of banned substances, the fallout transcended cycling. Sport in general was forced to shine a light inwards on itself. Soccer was no exception, and appeared set for an Armstrong moment of its own. It was simply a matter of time, and for Eufemiano Fuentes, the man seen as the gatekeeper to a doping scandal in soccer, time was running out.
Fuentes, the doctor at the heart of the Operacion Puerto doping case that rocked cycling and exposed the full extent of drug cheating in the sport, was tried in Madrid last year. But after months of deliberation he was only charged with "endangering public health" and sentenced to a year in prison. Anti-drug bodies around the world reacted angrily.
When police raided Fuentes' home in 2006, hundreds of tainted blood samples were seized, each one attributed to a professional athlete. Yet by his own admission, only a minority of Fuentes' clients were cyclists. So where are, by one calculation, the other 70 percent of Fuentes' doped athletes? Jesus Manzano, the whistleblower in the Operacion Puerto case, has testified that he had seen "well-known soccer players" visit Fuentes at his clinic in Spain.
If Manzano is being truthful, a vein of cheating and drugs could lead all the way to the very top of the sport. In an interview with a Spanish radio station, Fuentes himself explicitly confessed his involvement with several bodies, clubs and figures within the soccer sphere. "I've worked with Spanish football teams from the first and second divisions that have improved their performance," he revealed. "If I talk, Spain would be stripped of the World Cup and European Championship."
Fuentes' insistence that doping has tainted soccer's elite is supported by French newspaper Le Monde's claim that an uncovered list of the doctor's clients included medical records for Real Madrid, along with other top Spanish clubs. Even Barcelona, a perceived bastion of purity in the sport, is alleged to be implicit in the practice of doping after Luis Garcia del Moral, a doctor who helped supply Armstrong's doping ring at the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, claimed to have worked with the Catalan club.
For those who seek the truth about doping in soccer, the hope was that a paper trail, or more specifically a blood trail, leading from the Fuentes trial in Madrid could expose whether the sport does indeed have a drugs problem or not. Fuentes offered to name the athletes he had treated, yet it was decided by the judge that he was under no obligation to do so. There allegedly exists a full list of every athlete every to be doped at Fuentes' clinic, but we may never get to read it.
"We've been banging our heads against a brick wall to get access to the evidence that was gathered," complained David Howman, the WADA's general director, after access to Fuentes' computer and email records was denied.
The truth is that soccer may have had a doping problem for longer than anyone is willing to admit. Doping in the sport can be traced back to the 1950s, when the West Germany team at the 1954 World Cup was found to be under the influence of pervitin. After beating Hungary in the final, a caretaker at the host stadium reportedly found discarded syringes on the floor of the West Germany dressing room.
More recently, the WADA recorded 117 anti-doping rule violations among FIFA-registered athletes in 2011, which is the highest number of positive tests in any of the professional sports committed to WADA regulations.
Former Argentina international Matias Almeyda claimed in his autobiography published last year that as a player with Italian Serie A side Parma between 2000 and 2002, he and his teammates were often hooked to a drip before games. "They said it was a mixture of vitamins," Almeyda revealed. "But before entering the field I was able to jump up as high as the ceiling."
A magistrate ordered a raid on another Italian club Juventus in 1998. A number of banned substances were found among the 281 different pharmaceutical products stocked. "The club was equipped like a small hospital," said the medical adviser on the investigation. Former Marseille midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie detailed in his autobiography how injections of an unknown substance were administered to the club's players before the 1993 Champions League final against AC Milan.
Ahead of Inter Milan's Champions League last tie against Chelsea in 2010, Jose Mourinho remarked that "Dr. Needles will do the miracle" when asked about Petr Cech's fitness, the implication being that the club doctor would help him recover in time for the game. Why wasn't Mourinho asked to explain what he meant by that turn of phrase? Doping has become soccer's biggest taboo subject, regardless of how much evidence is uncovered.
FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, who actually sits on the WADA board, seems unconcerned by the prospect of widespread doping in soccer, once remarking that "it is not a question of fighting doping. But one should not really go for a witch-hunt." Anyone who raises the discussion of doping in soccer is quickly discredited by powerful figures, such as Blatter. It is this sort of resistance that soccer must dissolve.
For instance, when Jean Pierre Paclet, a former French national team doctor, explained in his book L'Implosion that several French players provided dubious blood samples at the 1998 World Cup, a tournament won by France, little note was taken. That was the case even after it emerged Didier Deschamps, captain of the French team, had once recorded a red blood cell count of 51.2 percent, a reading that would have seen him reprimanded in competitive cycling.
Many are in no doubt of doping's prevalence in the sport. "Doping exists in soccer," Marcel Desailly, a World Cup winner with France in 1998, put it bluntly. "That's so obvious it would be stupid to deny it." Arsene Wenger once noted the "abnormally high" blood values of players arriving at Arsenal, adding, "some clubs dope players without their knowledge."
Wenger might be referring to the use of Platelet-rich plasma (PRP) -- or blood spinning, which has been removed from WADA's banned list in recent years. However, 'spun' blood can be supplemented with other substances before re-injection. PRP is technically legal, but the practice of it in soccer is still a cause for concern.
Of course, the difference between winning and losing in soccer cannot be defined by speed, stamina and time like it can in other sports, like cycling. It is a game of skill, balance and vision that is played as much by the head as it is by the legs. In soccer, athleticism doesn't always translate into technical ability. But considering the number of testimonies, confessions and reports there are still those in soccer that belief doping can give them an edge.
However, there are still some that cast doubt on the suggestion doping is commonplace in soccer. "It would have to be a massive conspiracy," insisted Lord Triesman, former chairman of the English Football Association. Others will point to Diego Maradona's banishment for using banned substances at the 1994 World Cup, with two FK Rabotnicki players sanctioned after testing positive for drugs in a Europa League game against Lazio last season, as examples of how the system is working. But it's not.
There is nothing to suggest the use of performance-enhancing drugs is less prevalent in soccer than it is in other sports, yet the sport has missed so many chances to admit it has a problem. The time to hitch a ride on the back of the Armstrong scandal may have come and gone for soccer, but that doesn't mean the issue of doping in the sport is any less pressing. For too long, soccer has been implicit in a conspiracy of silence. Or rather a conspiracy of the deaf.
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Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for The New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.