Is football really clean? Print E-mail
October 2007 Life

After the doping scandals in cycling, Germans are now asking whether their favorite sport is played fairly - By Thomas Kistner

Germans are taking the doping problem seriously and many athletes and officials are surprised as the country's top sport, football, comes into the spotlight.

The bodies have been mounting up again these past few weeks. Three young footballers died on the pitch, and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) quickly went on the offensive. But FIFA had little to say about the curious deaths of the Spanish first division professional, Antonio Puerta of FC Seville, the Zambian national team player Chaswe Nosofwa (who played in Israel) the 16-year- old Walsall youth team player, Anton Reid. They said there should be more health checks to combat the risk of sudden heart failure. Days later, Spain's senior amateur league reported two more deaths.

Whatever the reasons for the deaths in football, FIFA's muddle-headed musings are a prime example of the approach taken toward the one theme that professional sport in general, and football in particular, steers clear of: medical science.

In professional sports, medical science is very often just a short step away from artificial ways of improving performance. Doping is the biggest taboo subject in the entertainment industry. So it's even stranger that it's the favorite, football, which manages, to this very day, to sell itself as a clean sport. Because there is mounting evidence that doping does take place.

Let's recall Zinedine Zidane's farewell gala at the World Cup. The 34-year-old's energy was sensational. In the qualifying matches, he had still played like a pensioner on the pitch. But then Zidane turned up the heat. Just like Ronaldo, his chubby colleague from Real Madrid who, despite a sudden, steep and unexpected upturn in his performance curve, went down with the rest of the Brazilian team in the quarter final - losing to the French and the positively zippy Zidane.

Today, such leaps in strength and endurance are eyed with mistrust in all sports, just not in the richest sport of them all - King Football refuses to tolerate any suspicion whatsoever. Here, the rule is as formulated by the doyen of notorious German sports medicine, doctor Joseph Keul from Freiburg: doping disrupts the ability to coordinate properly, which such a complex sport as football demands. Therefore, football players don't dope.

This senseless argument still applies today. In May, the German Football Federation's (DFB) internist, Tim Meyer, asserted that "the complex factors which determine performance are the best defense" against chemical cheating. It's a bold claim. Doping doctors will always lie and doctors, who are against doping, will never learn very much about how cheating works. Doctors, therefore, are questionable witnesses on the subject. The fact is that football is constantly waging a massive defense against independent controls. There are hardly any tests done during training in German football, either: only 87 in the 2006-07 season in the top three professional leagues.

It is in football especially that athletic demands have risen so hugely. Studies show that players in the past went full pelt seven to eight percent of the 90-minute playing period - today it's a good 15 percent. If they once ran 5 kilometers per match, today it's up to 12. At the same time, the number of compulsory matches is increasing while recovery time is reduced. As early as 1999, France's world champion Emmanuel Petit complained, "Things have come so far that we all need doping. Some are doing it already."

There's no questioning that steroids promote muscle regeneration, testosterone shortens the recovery time and the blood doping agent Epo improves endurance in the game considerably. Testosterone or Epo can be taken during training without worry, they are traceable for only 48 hours but they still work intensively for days afterwards - on match days, too, on which there are hardly any blood tests like during the World Cup. It's humbug to call the World Cup clean: A raised haematocritic value isn't noticed if nobody measures it.

Sure, drugs can't improve either on-the-ball talent or how to read the game. But Epo helps every player whose legs are getting tired. The best technician is useless if he lacks that tenth of a second that enables him to take possession, the half step that gets him into a shooting position. Just ask that powerhouse and doping addict Maradona or Zidane or consult the football archives: football and doping goes right back to the "Wunder von Bern," the German victory in the 1954 World Cup.

Following the 3:2 win, syringes and needles were found in the changing room of Sepp Herberger's boys. It wasn't just the Hungarian captain, Ferenc Puskas, who suspected doping at the time. Franz Loogen, the DFB team doctor then, swears he used just placebos. But sports historians have collected arguments for the suspicion that the players of 1954, known as the Wunder-Elf, were on Pervitin, a strong stimulant that was given to German soldiers in the war. It turned their fears into aggression.

The doping history of the East German clubs is full of amphetamines, the same stuff as in the West, where the stimulant Captagon was a long-running hit with professionals in the 1970s and 1980s. This was reported by the former Dortmund forward, Peter Geyer, in 1994. The manager, Peter Neururer, confirmed it this year. But witnesses like these are silenced. Not even Franz Beckenbauer could get his voice heard: In 1997, he spoke about players injecting themselves with their own blood, something that is harmless in comparison with what otherwise goes on.

Even at FC Bayern there were some who indulged in dubious practices. The former team doctor, Erich Spannbauer, drew attention when he was taking care of the team in the 1980s. Spannbauer's colleague, Heinz Liesen, a long-time DFB doctor, accused the German national team goalie, Toni Schumacher, of having supplied the Wunder-Elf with hormones. The DFB reacted: it barred the squealer (= traitor) Schumacher.

Dettmar Cramer, Bayern's coach in the 1970s, also registers on the radar. Sepp Maier claimed Cramer handed out mysterious white tablets. Just anecdotes? And manager Felix Magath advocated anabolic steroids be used during the regeneration phase. His colleague, Otto Rehhagel, was also attacked during the time he was coach at Bielefeld. Later, during Greece's 2004 European Championship, there was a lot of whispering about the iron endurance of his Hellenic eleven players, against which the opposition shattered.

The DFB has been conducting tests since 1984. But they are more of a bluff. Last season, there were 964 - happily announced - tests during 241 national and regional league games, at matches of the A-juniors, the women's Bundesliga as well as the League Championship including the 87 tests during training mentioned earlier. In the same period, there were 1,020 tests in track-and-field alone. According to the findings of the National Anti-Doping Agency Nada, among 100 testosterone values that stood out in the 2006 annual report, the DFB came in second place with nine cases - behind track-and-field with 21. But track-and-field conducted 12 times as many tests during training.

So what about the irrepressible German fighting spirit, which was as legendary as the Italian dominance in the European Cup of the 1990s? The latter was exposed by the judiciary as pharmaceutically cheating. Between 1994 and 1998, Juventus Turin won three league championships, the World Cup and three cup final appearances in the Champions League - an impressive record which, according to the verdict, was achieved by doping on the scale of a "criminal plan." During the trial, various abnormalities were revealed, such as that of Didier Deschamps. In June 1996, he had a haemocritic value of 51 percent, 12 percent more than the previous year.

In the 1990s, there was systematic doping at Olympique Marseilles and FC Sion. Arsene Wenger, coach at London's Arsenal, spoke in 2004 of "abnormally high" blood values of new players - he believes "that some clubs dope players without their knowledge." Pleading ignorance are those world-class players condemned for doping, such as Jap Stam, Edgar Davids and Josep Guardiola.

And in Spain? As Zidane transferred from the doping-contaminated Turin to Madrid, it appeared as if he would probably face the same problems there, too. The "Doping Doctor" Eufemiano Fuentes had admitted that he took care of football stars. The French newspaper Le Monde, which got a hold of Fuentes' list, published it including the medical records for Real Madrid.

And Zidane? That he too, after Juventus, fell into Fuentes' hands, can be discerned from the files. In France, his general attitude toward blood practices is already known. In 2003, rock star Johnny Hallyday revealed how he likes to visit a Swiss clinic for regeneration purposes, where he has blood taken, loaded with oxygen and re-injected. The tip came from Zidane, who, he said, treats himself to the procedure twice a year.

And Zidane's long-time Real Madrid colleague, Ronaldo? He's in trouble with Italy's doping hunters due to a forbidden blood transfusion he underwent, ostensibly, to heal a muscle injury more quickly.

- Thomas Kistner is a sports editor at the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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