When news of Mamadou Sakho’s failed drugs test emerged, there were some who feared serious consequences for Liverpool as well as for the player. Those not aware of Uefa regulations worried that, as the defender’s sample was taken after a Europa League game at Manchester United, a potential disqualification from the competition could occur.
Those fears were allayed once the Uefa rules were explained. More than two members of a team must test positive for a prohibited substance before the team are sanctioned, but Sakho is facing a lengthy ban after deciding not to challenge the results through a B sample examination. It is understood the France international’s A sample from Old Trafford on 17 March revealed evidence of a fat-burning substance. On Thursday he was provisionally suspended for 30 days by Uefa after it opened disciplinary proceedings.
It raises the issue of doping in football once again and – following Arsène Wenger’s comments earlier in the season when an opposition player tested positive for a banned substance – whether teams should face sanctions if only one individual breaks the rules.
Wenger, the Arsenal manager, said in November that Uefa “basically accept” doping after the Dinamo Zagreb midfielder Arijan Ademi failed a test following the Premier League side’s 2-1 defeat in Croatia. Ademi was banned by Uefa but Wenger was scathing of the European governing body, saying: “It’s a surprising rule. Uefa applies the rule, that is planned but I personally don’t agree with the rule. You cannot say: ‘OK, they had a doped player and the result stands.’ That means you basically accept doping.” Wenger also alleged that a Uefa anti-doping delegation turned up at Arsenal’s London Colney training ground to test his players because of previous comments he had made about the problem in football.
Uefa, though, operates under guidelines set out in the World Anti‑Doping Agency code regarding team punishments. The Football Association also works under the “more than two” rule that Wada recommends in relation to sports where the substitution of players is permitted. The FA has never had to punish a club for such a matter.
Wada does state, however, that “the ruling body for an event may elect to establish rules for the event which impose consequences for team sports stricter than those” recommended in the code. Any ruling body that governs a sport involving teams could therefore opt for stricter penalties.
Imagine if Sakho, or any other player who has tested positive for a banned substance, had scored a decisive, late goal during the match after which the failed sample was given. It would put the regulations under severe scrutiny and raise interesting questions about the effects that banned substances can potentially have on the outcome of a match. Sakho scored to equalise on aggregate against Borussia Dortmund in the next round of the Europa League, before news of his positive test was known.
There is surprising apathy among many supporters when the subject of doping in football arises – despite historical allegations of mass team doping – potentially because it is very difficult to quantify the effect a banned drug can have on such a technique‑focused game. However, although illicit substances may not improve a player’s technical ability, they can enhance endurance, strength and speed.
Michele Verroken, director of Sporting Integrity and formerly in charge of anti-doping in the UK, said: “I think there is a tolerance level of this because there are areas of confusion and contradiction. There are questions like: ‘What is a fat burner going to do to make a footballer better?’ There are huge areas of contradiction because there is not a definitive link in football to say that ‘this fat burner helped him score that goal’. People ask: ‘What’s a fat burner going to do anyway?’ I think it’s happening across sport; it’s not a Lance Armstrong issue where there was a deliberate cheat.”
Verroken recently advised players from a Premier League club with a presentation on the dangers of supplements, entitled: “How to prevent my career from going down the toilet.” On the question of team punishments, she said: “The FA don’t want clubs to do their own testing and I can understand that. Maybe if clubs were required to do their own testing as part of a health and safety approach and it was then audited by the FA and UK Anti-Doping, we might pick up on some of the issues. If you’re only testing two players per side post-match and it would take two adverse findings to make an anti-doping violation for the team, you’ve got to be really lucky to get the right two.”
There is an argument that a six-month ban for a player is punishment itself for the club in question. An additional argument in favour of clubs is that elite players often have different medical regimes at domestic and international level, falling under different jurisdictions and with varying advice on supplements. And should one individual’s innocent mistake result in a sanction for an entire team?
Conversely, if clubs suddenly found themselves in the firing line – even if they were not responsible for a failed test – then surely their efforts on education and monitoring would increase.
The FA, in conjunction with Ukad, carried out 721 blood and urine tests in the Premier League during the 2014‑15 season. That number was 501 for the Championship, 358 in League One and 328 in League Two. Of those tests, 68% were out of competition and players in the Premier League can be tested randomly at home.
Mike Stone, the chief medical officer at Birmingham City and previously at Manchester United, believes the FA and clubs do a lot to educate players. He said: “Clubs take drug misuse very seriously and speak with players about it, telling them they’re responsible. Beyond that it’s impossible to police what somebody does away from the club. The majority of drugs that people take, there won’t be obvious signs. I think the regulation that it has to be a few players before the club is sanctioned is sensible. You can’t legislate for what one player decides to do away from the club.”
A Wada spokesman said: “During the extensive consultation that led up to the approval of the 2015 code in Johannesburg, our stakeholders – including numerous team sports – agreed that the consequences for team sports struck a fair balance, and were proportionate to the offence. It should also be noted that event ruling bodies can set stricter consequences for team sports than permitted in Article 11.2, thus providing the event body with the discretion to decide on the level of punishment as it sees fit.”
There is no suggestion that Liverpool should be punished in the case of Sakho – and the club acted swiftly to remove the player from first-team duty – but does, as Wenger said, not punishing a club for a single failed test mean the authorities accept doping?