Kicking the habit

While professional soccer is far from squeaky clean when it comes to recreational drugs, the problem of substance abuse isn’t any more prevalent than in the rest of society. Performance-enhancing drugs, however, are a different matter.

Drugs have become more common in all walks of life, but I still don’t think you could say they’re a huge problem among professional footballers. Obviously it’s not the kind of thing that people advertise, and any professional footballer who’s involved in drugs will keep it to himself. But I saw very little evidence of it during my career, certainly in terms of recreational drug use.

The question of performance-enhancing drugs is another matter. At Marseille, I was suspicious of certain things that were given to us at times. We were never made aware of what we were taking. I was always told they were ‘adrenaline boosts’, whatever that meant. These would be issued via doctors, rather than the physio.

That aroused my suspicions, but Marseille was the only place I ever saw anything questionable. Of course, you don’t know whether you’re doing anything wrong or not, which is strange, because if the punishment’s going to hit anyone, it’ll be you, and you’re held to be responsible for whatever’s in your system.

As my career finished, I noticed that cocaine and the like was becoming far more prevalent than it had been – not just in sport, but in the world – and obviously football was going to be sucked into that to some degree. Young people will always be caught up in society’s latest trends, and footballers are no different. Highly-paid young men who think they’re bulletproof are certainly likely to experiment, and are willing to overlook the risks they’re running.

The consequences if you get caught are no laughing matter; no-one is going to stand up for you. The Adrian Mutu case showed that. Chelsea dealt with him very severely; they didn’t show any mercy. He’s tried to revive his career back in Italy, but his name will always be blackened by what happened.

I think it’s more severe in some parts of the world than others. England isn’t too bad. South America’s a different story, and there’s all sorts of rumours flying around about certain Brazilian footballers. But in England, you just don’t see it. When Rio Ferdinand missed a test a couple of years ago, the punishment was very harsh. There was no benefit of the doubt. He was given an eight-month suspension which ruled him out for the entire season. I think they were trying to lay down the law: they were making a statement. It was a very high-profile player from a big club, and I think the FA were in effect saying that it doesn’t matter who you are, who you play for or what you’ve achieved, you’re not going to get away with it. It sent out a strong signal, and you can understand them wanting to do that. The publicity was huge, the story was in the paper every day for a month or two. There’s a lot of people still think he got off quite lightly. He maintains it was a genuine mistake, but I think people thought his excuse was ridiculous. But he’s put it behind him since and moved on.

As far as drug testing, there was hardly any in my earlier career, and as I got older, it became far more frequent. It’s more rigorous now than it’s ever been, because they’re continually trying to stay on top of it. There’s a deep fear that if it becomes a big problem in football, the sport could lose popularity the way athletics did.

With sports like sprinting and cycling, it’s obvious that if you want to be one of the very best, you have to take performance-enhancing drugs. If you want to make it to the top and make any money, that’s the price on the ticket. That famous 100-metre Olympic final in 1988 when Ben Johnson got caught – seven of the eight men who raced that day have since tested positive for various things. That sends out a signal to the athletes that you need to do this in order to win – and it sends a signal to the public that the athletes can’t really be trusted. Then the whole credibility of the sport gets shot to pieces. No-one wants that to happen to football.

While I was living in France, I grew to love the Tour de France, but it became impossible to ignore the evidence of what it had become. If you want to win such a gruelling test, you have to take drugs. The doctors and coaches are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of the testing process, and there seem to be ways of escaping detection. Without mentioning names, there are people who are clearly guilty but have found loopholes in the law. It’s a very serious issue. In cycling, there have been a few casualties directly as a result of drugs.

The only way to stop it is through more frequent testing. For a number of reasons, it’s less of a problem in football than it is in individual sports. You might take something that makes you stronger and faster, gives you a physical edge, but it won’t improve your ball control, your technique or your ability to spot a pass. It’s a team game, and your individual impact still depends on your team-mates.

 
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