How clean is professional football?

Posted by Gabriele Marcotti

Drug Testing The Lance Armstrong doping debacle has fans asking questions about other sports, including football.

I can't definitively say that there isn't wide-spread systematic doping in football, of the kind we've apparently witnessed in cycling.

I simply can't, because I'm not omniscient. And, after seeing so many high-profile journalists -- from Buzz Bissinger to Rick Reilly -- vouch for Lance Armstrong for so many years only to be proved dead wrong, I sure as hell am not going to do it.

This Monday, when the trial of Eufemiano Fuentes begins in Madrid, we may or may not uncover more evidence. Fuentes is the doctor at the heart of “Operacion Puerto,” the criminal investigation into doping which rocked the world of cycling and led to the suspensions of dozens of cyclists. When police raided his offices in 2006, they found hundreds of vials of doped blood, each with a code name relating to an athlete. According to Dave Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and others, Fuentes boasted to his clients that he worked across a range of sports, including football. Yet thus far, only cyclists have been named in the list of Fuentes' clients.

This has led some to speculate that there is a giant cover-up, that athletes in other sports were systematically taking illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Former cyclist Tyler Hamilton compared Fuentes and his distribution network to Wal-Mart, suggesting he supplied doping programs to anyone willing to stump up the cash. One newspaper went so far as to name some familiar names, but they were sued for libel and the court found they had insufficient evidence.

The natural reaction from the cycling community has been this: "See? It's not just us! The whole world of sports is cheating! But nobody has the courage to go and properly investigate football, because that's where the big money is! And you're all scared of what you might find!"

Pat McQuaid, president of UCI, the governing body of world cycling, said in 2009: "Fuentes said it himself, 30 percent of his clients were cyclists. Where's the other 70 percent?"

Like I said, maybe they're all the same across all sports and maybe they're all cheating and we're all living a giant lie of Lance Armstrong proportions.

But logic and experience tells me otherwise.

Desiree Martin/AFP/Getty ImagesSpanish doctor Eufemiano Fuentes (seen here in 2010) will stand trial Monday. He once said that 30 percent of his clients were cyclists. Will we learn about the other 70 percent in the doping case?

There are medical and physiological reasons why it seems unlikely that there's a widespread doping problem in football. There is little question that teams and individuals have doped in the past -- some has come to light, some remains the stuff of disputed accounts from years ago -- but I tend to trust guys like one well-traveled fitness coach who told me the following: "If clubs could get away with it and there was some tangible benefit to it, then I'm sure it would still happen. But what we've seen from those who've done it and stopped and those who've done it and been caught is that the marginal benefit just isn't worth it. Unlike cycling and track and field, you just have too much to lose and too little to gain [in football]. It's just a different sport, the athletic side is just one component and, by focusing on that, you can actually mess up the technical side which remains most important.”

There simply is less of an incentive to dope systematically in football, both from the players' perspective and from that of the clubs. The risks are huge, the benefits are minimal.

Furthermore, if you look at numbers, you find that there is very little statistical variance in speed and stamina between teams, regardless of the metric you use (distance covered, top speed, etc.).

What this suggests is that either everybody is doping to the same degree and it all cancels out or the ones who are doping would otherwise rate extremely badly in terms of stamina and speed (begging the question of why, then, they don't simply sign fitter, faster players). Or, more likely, nobody is doping systematically.

For me, though, the argument that trumps everything is the other one: Nobody talks about this.

And I don't just mean that we haven't had a whistleblower, though if doping were so prevalent, you'd think someone might have stepped forward. After all, at different times, we've seen match-fixers and guys who were offered bribes come forth and tell all, often putting their own careers in jeopardy. Nor have any of the players who have tested positive -- about 30 worldwide by my count in the past decade -- talked about how they were part of some giant underground doping network (though, presumably, they would have received a lesser punishment if they had).

Incidentally, when it comes to drug testing you sort of get caught in an intellectual Mobius loop. There have been far fewer positive results for PEDs in football in recent years. Depending on your perspective it can either mean the sport is cleaner than it was, or it can mean the dopers are far more sophisticated and are one step ahead of WADA. Goodness knows, there is plenty of testing going on, whether it's surprise tests in-season at the training ground or sample collection after actual games, with players drawn randomly. A top player at a top club might be tested up to 30 times a season, excluding his own club's in-house tests. Note, too, that these are different bodies -- national FAs, UEFA or its continental equivalents elsewhere, and FIFA -- running the sample collection, which means it's different people. For a regular systematic doper to get away with it, it would mean that either he's really good at hiding his drug-taking or all these bodies are corrupt and part of a cover-up. Either that, or WADA itself is part of the vast conspiracy.

Beyond that, football folks are extremely gossipy. I've been in this line of work for more than 15 years. And apart from the cases that did come to light -- mostly back in the 1990s -- there hasn't really been any talk about PEDs in the game. Note that there is usually some level of “background noise” before a story like this makes it into the media. There certainly was with Juventus in the 1990s when they were deemed to have violated the “spirit, but not the letter” of the doping laws, or with the three Holland players who tested positive for nandrolone in 2001.

But now? Nothing. You hear more on the rumor mill about managers and club officials taking bribes and backhanders than you do PEDs. In fact, you hear more unsubstantiated stuff about recreational drugs than you do PEDs.

If there were certain clubs who were systematically using PEDs, you'd think someone, somewhere, would talk about it, even if it is just scuttlebutt. Think of the number of people in and around clubs: from players to coaches to executives to medical staff. Then consider that each of these players has an agent who has a personal stake in the well-being of an athlete. Now consider the fact that many of these guys will change clubs repeatedly during their career.

And not one of them lets anything slip? Not even the ones who fall out with a club and have an axe to grind? Not even those whose career is ended by injury and have nothing to lose?

Hey, anything is possible. But if that's the case, it's the sort of omerta of which Tony Soprano would be proud. After all, Fuentes and Armstrong were brought down precisely by those close to them leaking information (and eventually testifying against them): football is a far bigger community, footballers have far more people around them and there is far more media scrutiny … yet nobody has been willing to unmask anyone the way they did with Fuentes and Armstrong?

Lance Armstrong
Armstrong has cast a grim shadow over the sporting world.

OK, I know what you're going to say. Football is a huge industry. It's not going to expose itself and kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, is it? But that's only true if EVERYBODY is dirty. Think about it. If Team X is cheating and Manchester United or Real Madrid or Bayern are not, each of the clubs who are NOT cheating have a huge vested interest in the truth emerging. After all, if they lose to opponents who cheat, it doesn't just cost them trophies, it costs them money, too. It's hard to believe that “clean” clubs wouldn't get wind of PED use by “dirty” ones, just as clean cyclists were aware of the misdeeds of their less ethical colleagues.

In fact, it's even easier for clubs to get wind of PED use because there is so much cross-pollination: players move around, agents represent guys on rival teams, rival players become teammates with the national side. And believe me, there are many ways that a club can steer a journalist or an investigator towards a story about a rival.

Incidentally, the same argument applies to the national teams. Every two years, at the World Cup and Euros, they get a guy for six weeks and they can test, poke and prod to their heart's content. Again, with the level of testing that is done, it's tough to believe that someone can dope under one team doctor and then move to another without anybody noticing.

That's my best attempt at using reason, logic and my own experience in talking to football folk to rule out the possibility that PEDs are as widespread in football as they are in cycling. The deck just seems so stacked against a gargantuan conspiracy of silence.

Heck, maybe I'm wrong.

I sure as hell hope not, though.

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