Football naive to believe it’s untouched by Armstrong, October 2012

The world of cycling has dropped a fair few bombshells over the past few weeks. One, however, hasn’t quite had the impact it should have.

In 1999, whistle-blowing cyclist Tyler Hamilton was talking with the US Postal Service doctor Luis Del Moral. The medic, who has received a lifetime sporting ban by the US Anti-doping agency, revealed the following: “you guys take nothing in comparison to footballers”.

Over the last few days, it has been easy – and correct – to scoff at the attitude to doping in cycling. At the top, there was the arrogance of the UCI on Monday. Underneath, there was the ignorance of Lance Armstrong’s predecessor, Miguel Indurain. The five-time champion astonishingly claimed, despite all evidence, that Armstrong is innocent.

And, all around, there is justifiable doubt over whether the sport can ever escape a doping epidemic. The Usada report, after all, represented only the latest and largest scandal to afflict cycling. In 2006, it was similarly blown open when Spanish police investigated the doping network of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes in the infamous Operation Puerto.

It is that very incident, however, which indicates why those in other sports shouldn’t scoff too much. The only reason that Operation Puerto was such a scandal for cycling alone was because riders were the only alleged clients of Fuentes that were named. They amounted to 34 – a fraction of the 200 athletes said to be seeing the doctor. Indeed, Fuentes himself was so indignant that only cycling was tarnished that he announced he also worked with tennis and football players.

The question, then, is perhaps not even whether there is doping in football. It might be whether the scandal that has so ravaged cycling has actually always involved other sports; that cycling was only one strand.

Take the very point in the mid-90s when EPO started to take hold of the Tour de France. At around the same time, Roma manager Zdenek Zeman cast doubt about the physical development of the imposing Juventus team then dominating Europeanfootball.

It sparked an investigation which ended with the Juventus doctor being found guilty of administering illegal substances to players, including EPO. There followed a series of legal wrangles and appeals until, eventually, the Cassation court came to a final decision in March 2007. In a controversial compromise, the original guilty sentences were upheld but the statutes of limitation meant, in practice, everyone walked free.

In short, the kind of systematic doping so typical of cycling was essentially proven but nothing was done about it. Despite the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Dick Pound, calling for Juventus to be stripped of their titles, it never happened.

As has been often said about cycling, though, they weren’t the only ones at it. Only last month, Argentine international Matias Almedya alleged doping at Parma as questions again rose about a ‘culture’ in Italian football.

Of course, the reason cycling has had its history and records rewritten so dramatically is because of whistleblowers that could/would go further than Almeyda. Football has yet to see that.

But, under the overall silence, some worrying stories have started to swirl and spread beyond Italy. For the moment, without strong testimony, they remain as libellous as those which Armstrong sued over in the last decade.

One of the worst of them, though, regards an international squad conducting routine tests before a competition. Two of the results, however, were anything but routine. The only problem was that neither were the players involved. They were essential to the team and, as a result, the positive tests were covered up.

Then there is the case of the internationally-capped player who wanted to speak out about the doping programme at one club. He was subsequently bought off with a greatly improved contract.

Given the lack of official positive tests, this may all sound incredible. But, when you consider the fact the risk is so low and the rewards so high, it is actually somewhat inevitable.

First of all, even though testing remains up to a decade behind the dopers, Fifa has been slow to get serious about it. In 2006, they became the last Olympic sport to ratify the World Anti-Doping Agency code and have even contested the idea that individual players should be tested out of competition.

Secondly, there are the rewards. Look at the sheer money involved. And, although sports like football aren’t measured or decided by physical performance in the manner of cycling, the advantages of doping are obvious: increased recovery time for injury; superior stamina; the capacity to keep applying your existing ability at the most exacting stages of games.

If the stories are to be believed, though, football may face a few exacting years ahead. Doping in the sport exists. At the moment, the will to truly confront it does not.

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