Football still shying away from the thorny question of doping

In 20 years, no player has yet tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the Premier League.

Football, in general, sees far fewer drug cases than cycling or athletics. Of course, Lance Armstrong passed a lot of tests too, so you wonder what football’s low hit-rate means.

When you talk about the subject of drugs in football, one argument that comes up a lot is that there isn’t a problem with performance-enhancing drugs in football because drugs don’t enhance football performance. Disciplines like cycling and swimming are about testing the limits of how much power the body can produce, and we know certain drugs can raise your physiological ceiling. No drug can make you a better footballer. Football, as Cruyff said, is a game you play with your brain.

The thing is, football is also a game you play with your body, and anything that gives that body greater strength, stamina and resistance to injury will make you a better footballer. If that wasn’t true, there would be no need for footballers to do any fitness training.

Football is certainly different from cycling and athletics in the way it reacts to positive tests. Players like Kolo Toure or Paddy Kenny return to club duty after serving drug bans and everyone carries on as if nothing had happened. Nobody talks about them as being “tainted” as is commonplace with Olympic athletes who have served drug-related bans, like Justin Gatlin.

In 2000 and 2001, a host of top international players — Pep Guardiola, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Fernando Couto, Christophe Dugarry, Jaap Stam — tested positive for the steroid nandrolone. The reaction in football seemed to be that something must have gone wrong with the testing procedures. Guardiola told a press conference: “A machine says I have taken nandrolone. Next to this machine there is a man who says it’s not true.”

Followers of other sports have learned the hard way to be cynical about an athlete who tests positive and protests his innocence with a corny line. In the last couple of days we’ve all watched Lance Armstrong’s Nike ad from 2001 again: “Everyone wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, bustin’ my ass six hours a day. What are YOU on?”

Football has not learned to be cynical, it still believes in its heroes. Guardiola always denied doping, claiming he had only ever taken legal nutritional supplements, and eventually had his ban overturned on appeal in 2007. Few football fans could say they were unhappy to hear that the charges against such a popular player had not stood up. Nandrolone is now just a footnote in the brilliant career of the man whose Barcelona team revolutionised the game with a near-invincible system based on the marriage of sublime technique with relentless high-energy pressing.


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