Is doping football's biggest secret?

Doping in football rarely happens, if it happens at all. We know that because there are so few cases of anyone failing a drugs test. We can look back over the last decade and a bit to see how oddly the whole business is treated in football, and note the inconsistency with which punishments are handed out.

In December 2003, Rio Ferdinand was banned for eight months for missing a drugs test. He was also fined £50,000. Ferdinand said at the time that he simply forgot to attend the test, and there is no suggestion that he was not telling the truth over the matter. However, if you miss a drugs test, the testers do not simply re-appear a few hours later to make sure they get the result, or come back the next day, and the next day after that. If you miss a drugs test, you just miss a drugs test, and you might get another test in a few months, or next year. That means that – in theory – if you missed a drugs test, any recreational drug, or performance-enhancing drug, could well be out of your system by the next time you’re tested.

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That’s why Ferdinand was banned so severely, because the system allows for missed tests to carry a huge advantage for any player who is doping. In May 2011, Kolo Toure was banned for six months for abusing a diuretic as he tried to maintain a lower weight. Now, you can argue that there is some great discrepancy in a shorter ban for a player who did dope compared to a longer ban for a player who could have doped. But there’s an eight year gap between the events, and organisations are allowed to change how heavily they might punish players for certain offences. What these two punishments show is that there is a history of significant punishments for players who transgress the rules.

Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand was banned for eight months after missing a drugs test in September 2003. The ban, which began in January 2004 caused him to miss half a Premier League season and Euro 2004. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

In other sports, it can be more serious. Christine Ohuruogu’s career was essentially defined by her fight to get back into Olympic contention after missing a drugs test. Dwayne Chambers went through something similar after failing a test. Players have suffered enormously (as they well should) for failing to abide by the rules which attempt to keep the sport clean. They are limited, and they are clearly open to exploitation, but nonetheless we cannot argue when heavy punishments are given out. Deterrence in the punishment has to be part of the punishment. There are other, less severe punishments that you could argue only serve to encourage misbehaviour. And the efficiency of microdosing – to keep performance enhancing drugs within the legal limits – shows it is by no means a perfect system.

So, players have been banned for months. Athletes have been denied the chance to attend the Olympics. Ferdinand was fined £50,000 for missing a test.

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Manchester City have just been fined £35,000 for failing to ensure testers knew the whereabouts of their players on three occasions. The fine was limited not necessarily because the FA did not care, but because current guidelines suggest a fine of around £25,000. Reportedly the FA knows that it is a tiny sum, and the punishment guidelines need updating. Even if the FA does now care, the small sum suggests a few things.

One, it suggests that the FA remains thoroughly incompetent when it comes to organising the game. It repeatedly fails at all levels of the game, such as appointing Sam Allardyce and then being surprised when he was busted for looking dodgy. It fails to provide training for youngsters at a level commensurate with the wealth in the game. And here it fails to set an example of the importance of playing drug-free. At one point in the future, the FA will stop chasing its tail and reacting to self-created disasters, but one expects that to be the distant, not the near future.

Two, it suggests that the FA does not take three failures on a much greater scale than Ferdinand’s as seriously as it used to. It might not be the players’ fault, so you can hardly ban them, but the fine is actually less than Ferdinand incurred. They have clearly issued a fine that should be multiples of £50,000, and come up with a figure that is a third lower.

But thirdly, it shows something far more worrying: Manchester City cannot claim to care about doping in football, and they cannot be surprised if observers start to regard them with the suspicion that is levelled at Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe. All of them have failed to act convincingly when it comes to performance enhancing drugs – and while there is no accusation that they have done anything wrong – and they have suffered serious reputational damage. If another club starts a doping programme at its club, and then commits the same act as City, then nobody can be surprised that they were encouraged by the minimal punishments handed out.

And lastly, it shows the utter complicity and complacency in football journalism. Whereas cyclist journalists threw up at least a couple of cases of writers who would doggedly investigate wrongdoing, there’s nothing similar in football. The same is occurring in athletics. But in Britain, despite Ferdinand, Toure and City, it’s always treated as one isolated case after another. The chances of there being one case of honest mistakes after another are remote. And, like the the FA’s uselessness over the City punishment, it only encourages players and clubs to see if they can push, or break, the rules even more seriously.

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