Are Performance-Enhancing Drugs a Problem in World Football?

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Are Performance-Enhancing Drugs a Problem in World Football?
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WADA chief John Fahey says sports, including football, are risking their reputations if they don't take drug testing seriously.

Earlier this month, former Real Sociedad president Inaki Badiola told a Spanish courtroom the San Sebastian side had provided its players with performance-enhancing drugs over several years during the tenure of his predecessor, Luis Astiazaran—the current La Liga chief.

Badiola’s testimony was part of the ongoing Eufemiano Fuentes trial and, for the first time, linked Spanish football to illegal drug and treatment use in statements made under oath. Fuentes, a doctor, was arrested in 2006 as Spanish police pursued the Operation Puerto investigation that mostly targeted cycling.

But Fuentes himself has admitted his prescriptions and treatments went well beyond cycling. In a June 2006 interview with radio program El Larguero (translated by Cyclingnews), he said, “I have done the same thing with other sports. I have given advice on treatments for football teams, athletes and tennis players, among other sports.”

Performance-enhancing drugs and treatments do exist in football, even if news of their use—and perhaps the extent of it—isn’t as prominent as in other high-performance activities. But they are there just the same.

Former Leeds and England defender Danny Mills recently told the Telegraph that footballers "would do anything to get an edge."

“Everyone is getting fitter, stronger, trying to prevent injuries, looking for that new idea, that miracle cure to get them back from injury quicker,” he said. “If you play Saturday, Wednesday, Sunday and can reduce the effects by legal means or otherwise then there will be players who will be tempted.”

Of course, not all drugs and treatments are illegal, and Mills went on to cite the vitamin supplements, painkilling injections and Cortisone shots that he, himself, was given.

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Lance Armstrong has become the poster-boy for illegal drug use in cycling.

Footballers will also be less likely, simply because of the nature of the sport, to dabble in anabolic steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) treatments. They just don’t have a need for the resulting increase in muscle mass.

But Erythropoietin (EPO) is another story.

EPO increases the amount of oxygen beyond what is normal in an athlete’s blood—something that can be especially useful where endurance and quick recovery from injury are concerned.

At a meeting in London on February 11, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president John Fahey said football should be looking to enhance its testing procedures for EPO.

“I simply say this about football: they are not testing enough for EPO,” reported the Telegraph. “I would say tennis can do more, and football can do more,” he added.

FIFA, for its part, has plans to introduce what it calls a “biological profile” at the 2013 Confederations Cup, with broader implementation at the World Cup in Brazil a year later. The profile would keep track of urine and blood test results, compiled using rigorous out-of-competition testing on every participating player.

It’s a measure that has won the approval of WADA, and in comments reported by FIFA’s official website, Fahey said his organization was “very interested in continuing the work on biological profiles.”

WADA is very satisfied with the commitment of FIFA on the biological profiles,” he said, adding, “FIFA has always been serious in this domain. We think the leagues can complement what FIFA is already doing...”

If performance-enhancing drugs and treatments are viewed as more of a side issue in football than in cycling, it’s likely because there is no Lance Armstrong figure to sum up the problem in a single person.

But that’s not to say there couldn’t be. Fahey is adamant that if governing bodies such as FIFA and league administrations do not hold firm in a commitment to fighting illegal drugs and treatments, their own reputations risk deteriorating in the manner that cycling's so publicly has.

“I have no qualms in saying that sport has to take more responsibility for what is going on within its boundaries, and the Armstrong case has shown this with particular clarity,” he told the Telegraph. “Sport needs to recognise that every time there is an inept response from the sports administrators to doping—as we have seen from cycling over the years—the reputation of sport across the world suffers as a result.”

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