Charting the rise of some of football’s biggest names raises serious ethical questions of the beautiful game which have gone largely ignored.
It’s amazing how much you can get away with when people are invested in you. In politics, we see this link in its grimmest form, with well-healed law-makers manipulating the system so their backers are given a head start. In showbiz, we saw the influence of people like Harvey Weinstein, able to get away with a Gommorahn level of sexual abuse because he knew the right people, and could get things done due to their influence and wealth. In the glitzy world of post-blood-money football, it’s not so much the wealth of nefarious individuals driving less-than-stellar behaviour, but that the absurd new-found wealth of the sport has made winning an even more all-costs endeavour.
Manchester City are running away with the league, playing breathtaking football and running their opponents ragged. Pep Guardiola has been credited – rightly so – for his innovative tactics and high-pressing defensive style (another in-vogue aspect of playing the beautiful game), despite question marks around the legality and fairness of his methods.
For most people, this story starts with the Spanish cycling team and the now-famous Operation Puerto. However, for us it starts in 2001. Whilst playing in Italy, Guardiola himself was found to have steroids in his system. Mitigating evidence meant that – after a few appeals and serving a ban – Guardiola was cleared of misuse of illegal, performance enhancing drugs, despite tests showing over six times the legal limit of the steroid Nandrolone in his system. He has always protested his innocence, using multiple defences to claim his innocence throughout the lengthy appeal process (reopened in 2009).
The main argument was that his personal doctor – Dr. Segura – had accidentally given him contaminated supplements; a tale that unravelled after the doctor gave testimony and the supplements in question were tested. It later came out that Segura had been lackadaisical with these supplements, using materials that did not have correct certifications. The next line of defence was that Guardiola suffered from Gilbert Syndrome, which meant that his body had naturally produced the substance: these claims were found to be highly unlikely and lacking evidence. “Unstable urine” – an effect that meant nandrolone would appear in urine as a result of a chemical reaction – was used as a final argument, despite the chances of this happening being between 1/1000 and 1/10000. Stability tests were supposed to have been taken within 5 weeks of the initial sample, but at this stage it was too late. Guardiola, like many important people before him, got off on a technicality.
Although he was cleared in 2009, the accusations cast a shadow over Guardiola’s year. In 2010, UEFA fined his Barcelona team for not providing details of player whereabouts; an innocuous issue most of the time, but given the rumours around Pep and his all-dominating team, something with the potential to turn rather serious. Manchester City were fined for a similar breach of anti-doping rules last year. As we now know, all it turned into was what many consider to be the greatest club side in history. It’s here that Operation Puerto and Eufemiano Fuentes enter the story.
Fuentes – a former athlete – was the doctor for multiple Spanish cycling teams. In his Madrid clinic in 2006, investigators found 186 bags of blood marked with coded names, alongside a plethora of steroids, EPO’s and growth hormones. Although it was mostly cyclists implicated in the scandal, he was also linked with football and tennis players, including Rafael Nadal. In 2010, as part of Operation Greyhound, he was arrested again due to his part in a doping scandal. Police once again seized a large quantity of steroids from his clinic, as well as the equipment for blood transfusions and more coded bags of blood. Former mountain biker Alberto Leon was also found with several bags of blood in a fridge on his property: he later killed himself. Fuertes was said to have told an informant he had information that could lead to Spain being stripped of their European and World Cups – a claim he denied making.
In court, Fuentes tried to implicate other sportsmen and women in the scandal, going so far as to offer to decode the names on each individual bag, but was told specifically to only name cyclists. His computer was also ruled as inadmissible in court due to privacy concerns. Considering Pep’s past and the number of those Spanish players who also played for Barcelona, it was no surprise to see rumours swirling, although they were promptly shut down (the same judge that said Fuentes didn’t have to name names also demanded that the remaining blood bags be destroyed in 2013, thus destroying the remaining hard evidence that could implicate other sportsmen and women).
2013 saw Pep move to Bayern Munich for three years, where his team suffered from a number of injuries and failed to win the Champions League. That year also saw the beginning of a decline in the fortunes of Rafael Nadal, who acquired a reputation for developing injuries.
In 2016, Pep moved to Manchester City and – more importantly – back into the same support network that he had at Barcelona, with old friends Tixi Bergstein and Ferran Soriano already well established at his new club. He has seen a vast improvement in a number of players under his tutelage in the blue half of Manchester, with Kevin De Bruyne probably top of the list. The Belgian has gone from a gifted midfielder to an all-out athlete; a far cry from his performances at Chelsea and Wolfsburg, where he would be obviously lagging towards the end of a match.
Pep has also seen several of his City players return from injury much quicker than expected: Gabriel Jesus both this season and last; Ilkay Gundogan last season, Leroy Sane earlier on in the year, John Stones and Fabien Delph (both this season). His Barcelona team was also remarkably homogenous, made up of the same core group of players who managed to play fifty-plus games per season with minimal injuries. Xavi and Iniesta were two who almost never missed a game, even though during this period they also played full summer tournaments with their national team.
However, City are not the only team to have suddenly and exponentially increased their fitness, and De Bruyne is not the only player to have an incredible uptick in fitness and form. Three years ago, Harry Kane burst onto the scene and seems to be going from strength-to-strength, quite literally. Cast aside by both Tottenham and Arsenal at youth level, before being brought back to the white half of North London after a spell at Watford, Kane endured a number of disappointing loans at lower-league clubs. Late bloomers are more than common in football, especially in the striking department (Ian Wright was playing in parks until his 20’s), but Kane’s massive improvement in both his strength and pace (especially last season) is eerily impressive.
Of course, professional athletes can condition themselves and have the tools to do so drastically. Whether or not they can do it that drastically in a natural manner is the question. Much like his diving, there is very little chance the English media will question his vast improvement, especially if it gives England a chance to upset the big boys in Russia in 2018. Given his current manager’s obvious disdain for the rules of the game, it’s highly unlikely his club would call him out either.
It’s quite likely they’re just men blessed with a natural aptitude for their roles, and a bit of luck at the right times. I have no doubt that Harry Kane has worked hard to achieve what he has, and clearly he has a determination and a winner’s attitude, as does Guardiola. But in a cut-throat world, where the finest of margins determine ignominy over the eternal success of titles, it does seem to be likely there are some – if not many – bending the rules. Guardiola is under immense pressure, having spent more on defence than some countries. Arsene Wenger has complained previously about new players coming in with unnaturally high red-blood cell levels – a sign of blood doping – so it does obviously happen. The question is, how do we solve it?
Although sportspeople always have and always will cheat, the vast injection of cash into the game has certainly made the stakes higher. Winning and losing are no longer just about league positions or glory but about large, financial investments and, in the case of City and PSG, proxy-wars between rich Arab states jostling for geo-political dominance. Many believe this level of investment is damaging the game in numerous ways, and is an incredibly unstable way of running things – accusations laughed off by fans of the nouveau-successful, nouveau-riche clubs, until, of course, they become the next Malaga or Blackburn.
There could always be more stringent anti-doping regulations and testing, but frankly the likes of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will always be behind: there will always be some new way for dopers to dupe testers, and anybody who is found out can usually appeal and win on plausible deniability, or get away with a short ban and a minimal stain on their reputation (i.e. Maria Sharapova).
The only thing that would really work is a culture change in football, where winning at all costs – even at the detriment to long-term player health and a disregard for the concept of fairness – is now the only acceptable end to a season for the big clubs. This is unlikely given that as recently as a fortnight ago we’ve had high-level coaches trying to legitimise diving – and therefore cheating – as an acceptable tactic. Like most things, doping in all its forms is unlikely to ever leave football, but if we can get professionals to be more vigilant, to name names instead of joining in because “everyone else is doing it” and we are willing to put values like fair play and honesty above an almost sociopathic need to win, then we might stand a chance.