Mamadou Sakho was just 17 when he was first handed the captain’s armband at Parc des Princes, becoming the youngest ever Ligue 1 captain in the process, in what was also his senior league debut for PSG. He was eight years old when he first heard Anfield reverberate to the sounds of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” while watching television in his family’s apartment in Paris’ 18th arrondissement.
He grew up in an area of Paris known as Little Africa, regarded as being one of the city’s toughest districts. Football truly was a saviour for Sakho, with some of his childhood companions now in prison or deceased. At the age of 14 he was already immersed in the PSG academy, but by his own admission carried a rebellious streak and was at one stage threatened with expulsion, despite the club’s belief even then that the young man was a natural leader. Any insubordination was put to a swift halt following the death of his father that same year, when a young man who always realised the opportunity he had hardened his resolve to succeed.
“Maybe it was strength of character but I was also quite bright and realised I had been given this chance and that I would not let it slip. I think it was the best way, the best reply I could give to life. Certainly football provided me with the best path I could take.”
Before his move to Liverpool, he scored two crucial goals in a World Cup play-off against Ukraine, his first two goals for France that also delivered Les Bleus to Brazil. Sakho is a player that has been marked as a leader since his beginnings at PSG, and has lived up to that potential. He has 25 international caps for a national squad that can also call on the likes of Laurent Koscielny and Raphael Varane to fill a berth at central defence. He is a former PSG captain and has also worn the armband for Liverpool. It is worth remembering at this point that Sakho is only 26 years of age and not the veteran defender that he is often portrayed as.
All of which makes last weekend’s news of a failed drugs test somewhat surprising. Although we pointed out previously on the site that such a high-profile conviction might be on the horizon, Mamadou Sakho would not have leaped out as a likely candidate. Upon his arrival at Liverpool Brendan Rodgers described him as “a beast in training,” and even allowing for Rodgers’ Martinez-like optimism, he later declared Sakho’s performance as captain in the Europa League as “outstanding.” While Sakho was not a guaranteed starter under Rodgers, feeling like “a caged lion” with the Northern Irishman at the helm, there was nothing at the time to suggest there was any issue with his physical shape.
Which of course is being given as the reason for the failed drug test from the Europa League clash with Manchester United earlier this season. Coincidentally, PSG director Leonardo previously expressed concern at Sakho’s conditioning, claiming that he was “slightly overweight” after being dropped by Carlo Ancelotti. When such a statement is made in public, it can stick in the public mindset, and the effect on the player in question must also be considered. Even this, however, does little to explain why he would feel compelled to self-prescribe fat-burning pills. Reflect on the resources at his disposal at Melwood for a second - a dedicated team of sports scientists, nutritionists and other specialists who are employed to monitor and control a player's physical condition, and the fact that if he was struggling with his weight or a high BMI, it would very quickly be noticed and put right.
It is irresponsible to subscribe to the view that doping in football brings negligible gains - in this age the slightest advantage can make a significant impact; in the last ten minutes of a game when exhaustion forces errors and slow thinking, any additional energy will ensure better performance when others may falter. Given the outcome of the Premier League, when the two teams topping the table are lauded for their fitness and stamina, it is no longer just naive to suggest doping will not affect outcomes, and is instead wilfully ignorant and blinkered. But it is hard to shake the fact that Sakho’s alleged drug use doesn’t make a large amount of sense.
This is a player that has played over 300 senior competitive matches; a record-breaking club captain in France and a fan favourite at Anfield (the excellent Ken Early made the point that Simon Mignolet was subjected to more criticism than Sakho after the weekend’s performance against Newcastle). If he has been doping throughout his career then it is a damning indictment on testing procedures, but this seems unlikely. Whether he was driven to this point by Brendan Rodger’s reservations about his fitness is also moot, while the whole saga begs the question - why has a relatively young professional footballer at the higher end of the game felt compelled to use performance-enhancing drugs?
His past suggests a footballer who has tasted plenty of life outside the bubble described by Juan Mata, while his community work since arriving on Merseyside shows a rounded individual. Career decisions to date would also point to a young man who is not prone to recklessness. Maybe the pressures and rigours of the game have gotten to him, and on a human level this sort of pressure should draw a degree of sympathy, however one feels about drug use or base-level cheating. The football stakes are higher than ever with more money flowing through the game than at any time previously. Squads are also regularly bloated with intense competition for places, without mentioning the scrutiny surrounding clubs and managers when transfer windows open. Regardless of Sakho’s physique, it is fair to speculate that he would be a successful footballer without resorting to doping - between specialists at clubs and intense fixture schedules, it is difficult to make the case that Mamadou Sakho needed to cheat to succeed. That he felt the need to provides a compelling insight into the rigours of life as a professional footballer.
Mata is right in saying that footballers earn obscene amounts of money, but this offers little protection against the pressures of the game which can sometimes prove crippling - something that is beyond the capabilities of the Melwood-based physical trainers and physiotherapists to rectify. As the late Johan Cruyff once remarked, “you play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.” In its own way, maybe the latest drugs controversy in football shows that the mental wellbeing of players is still low on the list of priorities in the game.