No Doping At The World Cup? That's What FIFA Says

Just as FIFA has shown the ability to patrol match fixing, head injuries, racism in the stands and stadium security, it is again showing that it is on top of the serious issues in the game.

Updated: June 21, 2014 09:36 IST
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Representational image: Footballers are more interested in getting high on glory and appear ready to work hard for it.


Rio de Janeiro: So far in this World Cup, not a single player has tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

Great job, soccer, we are proud of you!

Just as FIFA has shown the ability to patrol match fixing, head injuries, racism in the stands and stadium security, it is again showing that it is on top of the serious issues in the game.

Fans break through the gates? Don't worry, they were chased down like chickens and caught inside. Player knocked unconscious during a game? Don't worry, his team doctor took less than two minutes to determine he was fine.

Now, with its billions of dollars of revenue worldwide from television rights and merchandise, soccer is doing things right on the doping front. Because the anti-doping laboratory here was stripped of its World Anti-Doping Agency accreditation for false positives last year - leaving the country without an accredited anti-doping lab less than three years before it hosts the Summer Olympics - FIFA is spending big bucks to ship urine and blood samples from these games 5,600 miles or more to Switzerland to have them tested at an official WADA lab.

And just as in the past two decades, FIFA again has a perfect record of keeping out the cheaters.

What a wonderful streak of a clean sport soccer has had in this, its biggest tournament, where nearly 1,000 players compete for hours and hours every four years in hot, humid conditions for three weeks or more. This year, some are even playing in the Amazon rain forest. Nearly all the players were tested before the World Cup began, and two players from each team are tested each game. Yet there has not been a single failed doping test at the World Cup in a generation.

The last time a player tested positive at this event was 20 years ago, when Diego Maradona was kicked out of the 1994 tournament for using the stimulant ephedrine.

The absence of failed drug tests is a clear indication that World Cup stars do not need to rely on pharmaceuticals to get by, right?

No one at this World Cup, or any World Cup, has been caught using a blood booster like erythropoietin, more commonly known as EPO, which would be perfect for soccer players to increase their endurance for their 90-plus-minute games. No one punished for steroids, which would be very useful to build strength for sprinting or recover between matches.

FIFA is doing all it can to keep it that way.

In the lead-up to this World Cup, it announced that it was implementing a biological passport, an anti-doping method that does not look for drugs in an athlete's blood or urine. Instead, it tracks certain parameters in urine and blood over time to set baselines. Any variation in those numbers could show the body's reaction to drugs or blood doping.

FIFA announced the program as if it were cutting edge. In truth, it was as if every player was getting this new technology called an iPhone. The sport of cycling instituted the bio-passport program more than six years ago. Track and field adopted the program four years ago. They have already caught and sanctioned athletes for having abnormal passport values.

Some leaders in soccer hint that the "new" program might not catch many people anyway because, they said, soccer is not rife with drug use.

In 2012,

after systematic doping in cycling was uncovered during the Lance Armstrong scandal, Michel Platini, the former star player turned UEFA president, said he thought it would be impossible for anyone to dope on such a huge scale in soccer because someone would get caught.

"I don't think there is any form of organized doping in soccer," said Platini, who has never had to handle the fallout of a doping scandal.

Xabi Alonso, a Spanish defender, said before the World Cup that no player would take a chance on doping at the event because the stakes were too high.

Maybe times have changed. A report released by the German government last year said that West German players who won the 1954 World Cup had been injected with Pervitin, an amphetamine that had been developed to make the Nazi military fight longer and better.

But how about outside the World Cup, when players might be doping out of competition?

The way David Howman, director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, explained to me, FIFA is like the International Olympic Committee because it does not do testing outside its own events. It leaves that testing to its confederations and national federations.

Should that be a worry? No, as long as you have blind faith that the national federations that are charged with promoting their sport will also police it.

Look how well Spain has done in the past to monitor its own athletes when it comes to doping. Perhaps only naysayers would be discouraged that Spain's anti-doping agency and national sports federations failed to catch athletes involved in one of the biggest blood-doping rings ever. A doctor named Eufemenio Fuentes ran a blood doping ring in Valencia and was caught in 2006, in what would be called Operation Puerto, only after a cyclist outed him. More than 200 blood bags were found in a raid.

"We were told at the initial press conference that the athletes involved were not from one sport, but from several - tennis, athletics, cycling and football," Howman said, with football meaning soccer.

Jesus Manzano, the cyclist who broke open the investigation, said he had seen "well-known soccer players" in Fuentes' doping clinic.

Fuentes himself was quoted by the French newspaper Le Monde as saying that he worked with Spanish first- and second-division soccer clubs, sometimes carrying out the treatments directly on players, other times sharing information about doping with the clubs' doctors.

When asked why none of those players had been caught doping, he said, "There are certain sports people can't go up against because they have a very powerful legal machinery with which to defend themselves."

There was a chance that WADA would get the 200 blood bags from the investigation, to test their DNA to see to whom they belonged, but the Spanish judge overseeing the case ordered that the bags be destroyed. The judge's decision is under appeal.

But none of that, and none of the retired soccer players who have said they received unidentified injections from team doctors, should ruin anyone's view of soccer at this World Cup.

Don't let it ruin this moment. No one ever tests positive at the World Cup. Just do what FIFA has done in the past: Close your eyes and pretend that doping in soccer does not exist.

© 2014 New York Times News Service

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