In March of this year the world of Tennis was rocked with news that 5 time grand slam champion and former World Number 1 Maria Sharapova had tested positive for a banned substance.
BBC tennis commentator Andrew Castle described the news as a hammer blow to the sport of tennis. Even that may be an understatement.
The Russian had won Wimbledon at the age of 17, has been the highest earning female sports star in the world for the last 11 years running, and is also one of the most marketable women in sport. The 28 year old had ties with, Porsche, Tag Heuer, Evian, Samsung and Nike to name but a few.
Tennis now joins the growing list of sports that have had high profile stars admit to doping. Athletics, Cycling, Swimming and Baseball have all lost some sort of credibility over cheating allegations pinned on individuals or, in recent cases, against entire nations.
In November of last year a 323 page document was published by the World Anti Doping Agency, which pointed to widespread doping and mass cover ups throughout the entire Russian sport and athletics authorities. In response, the International Athletics Federation has prohibited all Russian athletes from competing in any IAAF events until full compliance is agreed.
“Doping abuse can happen in any sport. It is another matter that in football we try to put it under maximum tough control,” These are the words of Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich. Speaking in the same manner as a firefighter would when discussing a recent blaze in a forest; it’s under control. The embers may still be burning and it may not be extinguished for a long time but trust us……it’s under control.
In modern times football has rarely had any large scale or high profile cases of doping or cheating. Sure there was Rio Ferdinand’s missed drug test in 2003 but that can be attributed to stupidity more than anything. There have also been many cases of footballers found with recreational drugs in their system, but give a 22 year old a 3 day job with £30,000 a week and see how long it takes him to make a fool of himself.
But there have been many cases of stars in the top divisions around Europe being caught with performance enhancing drugs in their system.
Turkish Legend Hasan Sas in 1998. Manuele Blasi in 2003. Former Liverpool defender Abel Xavier in 2005. Marco Borriello in 2006. Dutch legends Edgar Davids, Jaap Stam and Frank De Boer all tested positive for banned substances. Even incoming Man City manager Pep Guardiola tested positive for Nandrolone when playing in Italy and was subsequently banned for four months.
Italy has, to put it mildly, a chequered history when it comes to ethics in football but no one can deny their attitude to the problem of doping in the sport. Regulations now in force mean that 4 players are tested after each Serie A and Serie B game. Which means in the top 2 divisions they would have tested 6,080 players last season. To put this into context, last season the FA tested 2,286 players over the entire football league from Premier League to League 1.
If we say that every squad in the football league has 25 players (not taking into account reserve and U-21’s players) then there is around 2,300 players in the Football League at any one time. When you consider the fact that not all tests under the FA are random and some players or clubs that are under suspicion are tested more than others, that means that some players could technically go years without being tested. In the FA’s own doping regulations they say that some players are tested in their own home. Now call me a cynic if you will but if I was taking drugs and was expecting a random call from a doctor to test me at any time I would be keeping a jar or two of drug free pee lying around in the bathroom for just such an occasion.
When the aforementioned Russian scandal came to light it would not have seemed over the top if FIFA was to strip Russia of the World Cup until such time it was deemed fit to host it. Sadly as we have come to expect over the years, FIFA’s grand gesture was a promise to “carefully analyse the findings of the report.” What else would you expect?
It does beg the question however, if the governing body of football is so unmoved by one of the biggest sporting cover up in recent times, how serious are they about keeping their own game clean?
The Sunday Times report which indicted Dr Mark Bonar as a physician who was prescribing banned substances for athletes caused a shock wave in British sport.
The doctor claimed he had worked with and supplied drugs to a cyclist, a cricketer, a boxer and numerous Premier League clubs.
Leicester, Birmingham, Arsenal and Chelsea have all been keen to deny any allegations of wrongdoing but it is difficult to imagine that in the entire Football League there is not one player taking performance enhancing drugs.
Not one player in the lower leagues struggling to renew a contract, with a mortgage to pay and a niggling knee injury that needs to heal now.
Not one 17 year old who is studying for his final exams while under pressure from his Father and agent to break into the senior team before his chance is gone.
Not one senior star who is not quite ready to give up a fat contract and will do anything and everything to extend his career by one more season.
I am aware that it almost seems as if I am hoping for someone to be found guilty of doping in football but I can assure you that is not the case. I am merely posing the question, if no drivers were caught speeding would it be because nobody is going over the limit or a lack of resources to catch them?
Arsene Wenger said in 2013 that football was becoming a game “full of legends who are in fact cheats” and that “I always was a believer that there’s a lot of cheating going on in our game”. A damning indictment of the state of the beautiful game coming from one of the most influential Premier League managers.
There can be a lot said about footballers cheating, whether it’s diving, feigning injury or cheating at boardroom level in terms of revenue coming from untrustworthy sources. But until the FA can stand up and say our game is clean there will always be question marks as to whether enough is being done to prevent the sport we love from falling into the abyss that has already devoured sports like cycling and baseball.
Like electricity passing through a current, it always finds the path of least resistance, then someone, somewhere will always take the easy option to get ahead. The FA must ensure that that does not become prevalent in football.