Doping In Football: An Investigation

Ewan James

Earlier this month saw the surprising news of a footballer being banned for taking performance enhancing drugs. The Ajax FC Goalkeeper, Andre Onana, failed an out-of-competition drugs test in October 2020. Consequently, he was handed a 12 month suspension applying to all football activities, starting from February 5th 2021.

The Cameroon international, claims to have mistaken his wife’s medicine for aspirin, this being the explanation for traces of a banned substance in his urine sample.

While sports such as cycling and athletics seem to be associated with constant doping scandals, the use of performance enhancing drugs in football is practically unheard of. This is a confusing reality when considering the intensity of the modern game. In an attempt to understand the relative absence of doping in football, I have taken a deeper look into football’s relationship with performance enhancing drugs.

Historically, football has led the way in testing for drug use in sport. The 1966 world cup was the first major sporting event which conducted mass drug testing, pre-empting the first testing at an Olympic games by 2 years. This, added with the remarkably few doping scandals that have occurred in football, helps to form the general consensus that football is essentially ‘drug-free’. This widely accepted view is echoed by FIFA. The former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, insisted there is no evidence of systematic doping in football.

The statistics regarding the frequency of positive drug test results in football seem to support this consensus. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), doping levels in football are significantly lower than the average for other international sports. Between 1994 and 2005 for example, just 0.12% of drugs tests carried out by FIFA came back positive.

Although still banned in football, recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine are not used in doping programmes

In British football, between 1988 and 2002, of the few test results which returned positive, 77.5% highlighted the use of recreational drugs rather than performance enhancing drugs. Although still banned in football, recreational drugs such as marijuana and cocaine are not used in doping programmes.  

Furthermore, there have only ever been 2 English league players punished for taking performance enhancing drugs. Billy Turley in 2002 and the Portuguese international Abel Xavier, who was banned for 12 months due to use of anabolic steroids in 2005.

While statistically football appears (almost) squeaky clean, anecdotal evidence from certain players and managers paints a different story.  In the early 2000’s, players from French and Russian clubs provided testimony of drug use in their leagues. Marcel Desailly, a former Marseille FC defender, publicly stated that the club chairman instructed the squad to take pills before important matches. In Russia, two former Spartak Moscow players gave evidence indicating a systematic drugs programme was used by their club in 2003.

It did appear that some clubs were injecting players with performance enhancing drugs without their consent

Perhaps the most well-known anecdotal controversy came from Arsene Wenger and his accusations of European clubs being involved in systematic doping in 2004. The ex-Arsenal manager claimed that certain foreign players that Arsenal signed in the 2004 transfer window had displayed symptoms of erythropoietin (EPO) use. EPO is a form of blood doping which increases the body’s number of red blood cells and consequently improves aerobic capacity. Wenger insisted that drugs were not a big problem in football, but it did appear that some clubs were injecting players with performance enhancing drugs without their consent.

Anecdotal evidence such as this suggests that the bold claims of FIFA are somewhat overconfident. Indeed, convictions against Juventus FC club doctor Riccardo Agricola in 2004 suggest widespread systematic doping may have been taking place in the early 2000s.

Agricola was given a 22 month suspended jail sentence after 20 players in Juventus’ first team showed evidence of chronic EPO use. He was also sanctioned with the use of legal drugs in a manner that had the same effects as illicit substances. Upon searches at the clubs training facilities, the club was found to be holding enough pharmaceuticals to run a small hospital.

In short, the statistics regarding doping in football do not add up when considering the anecdotal evidence and previous convictions that have occurred. With the conflicting information, it is difficult to estimate the actual extent of doping in football. What is clear, however, is that there must be more research. As with all sports, it is likely a certain level of doping takes place; yet, it is very possible professional football’s levels are much higher than expected.

So, while Andre Onana may seem like an isolated incident of drug use in football, it is important to remember that of those players who are caught doping, there are likely many more who go under the radar.

Ewan James

Featured image used courtesy of Derek Gavey via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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