Under the Carpet – How Clean is Football?

“I worry that things will change. That players will decide they've done the gym work like everyone else, but they still need more. They still need something to make them stand out. We've seen in cycling, athletics, rugby and other sports where that can take you. Football isn't a special case.” – Stephen Hunt, Irish Independent, September 2015

Stephen Hunt is sometimes depicted as a cartoon character of a footballer, and this labelling makes the above excerpt from his Irish Independent column all the more portentous, like a clown peeling off a mask to announce a tragedy. You know this is serious.  

In tennis, Maria Sharapova’s announcement of failing a drugs test prompted familiar reactions. Commentators were quick to note her country of origin, as well as drawing comparisons with previous drug convictions in tennis and their leniency in contrast to other sports.  There were some baffling comments about her supposed bravery, but the news certainly brought a reaction.  It seems that every other sport bar football has a drugs problem; although the use of video technology excepted, football is never far behind other sporting codes.

Unfortunately, football governance is certainly still in the dark ages when it comes to rigorous testing and subsequent punishment.  Arsène Wenger has been outspoken about this in the past, and his frustrations at the lack of drugs policing in the game is commendable, with his comments that the sport “is full of legends who are in fact cheats.”  

Whether you believe the “Arsène Knows” banners that were once popular at The Emirates or not, it is hard to shake the feeling that he must have at the very least a strong suspicion that high-level football is bloated with drug-users.  The hear-no-evil, see-no-evil policy currently employed by FIFA and UEFA can only go on so long before somebody really blows the lid, or worse still there is a footballing tragedy with echoes of the deaths of young cyclists in the past through the use of performance enhancing drugs.  

There are those, some even worryingly involved in the game, who believe that performance enhancing drugs are not an issue in football even if they are prevalent.  People ask the question – in a game of such skill, how much of an effect can it really have? Football is not reliant on strength, stamina or endurance in the eyes of some romantics.  A slightly myopic view as the two teams chasing the Premier League title are widely acknowledged as being either the fittest or hardest working. Imagine either of these teams finding an extra 10% for the run-in? Or even half of a percentage?

Other sports work the percentages, and analytics is growing as a coaching and management tool in football also.  While you can’t imagine Claudio Ranieri going to such extremes, football is a big sport and it is inevitable that others will. Boundaries will be pushed as in cycling, reputations will be tarnished as Wenger has predicted, and with the sporadic and dated testing procedures in place we can never be entirely comfortable that this has not already happened.  

Football is a unique sport – more money, more popular, more column inches – but as Stephen Hunt said, it isn’t a special case.  It is time to stop pretending it is.