Drugs & soccer

JUVENTUS, alias the Teflon Club, could well get away with it again. Escape lightly, even totally, from the extremely serious drug charges being brought against them in Italy; just as they did long ago when we, at the Sunday Times, had them bang to rights over their attempt, an unsuccessful one, to bribe Francisco Marques Lobo, the brave Portuguese referee of the European Cup semifinal between Juve and Derby County at the old Baseball Ground, in 1973. A club which has always had the formidable backing of the Agnelli family of Fiat fame is not one to be trifled with whatever the circumstances.

And, on this occasion, the circumstances have been pretty dire. Ever since the somewhat morose Czech manager Zdenek Zeman, ex Roma, Lazio, Bari and currently at Verona, blew the whistle on the curious musculature of certain Juve players - he singled out Gianluca Vialli, Alessandro del Piero and Christian Vieri - the process has been grinding on. Zeman remarked, "Calcio (soccer) needs to get away from the chemists." Which, for me, evoked memories of what the highly intelligent, greatly likeable Livio Berruti, winner of the 200 metres gold in the Rome Olympics of 1960, said to me when he decided to retire. He wasn't interested, he declared, in "a competition between chemists." And he himself had a university degree in Chemistry!

For three and a half years now, the investigating judge, Raffaele Guariniello, has been pursuing the case. Juve recently tried and failed to get it thrown out. The accusations against them and their medics are pretty grave. It has long been known that Juve were dosing their players with creatine, to build up muscular stamina. The preparation is not in fact illegal, but it is known to be potentially dangerous when taken to excess, and the Juve players were being given no less than five times the normal dose!

Three Juve internationals, Febrizio Ravanelli, Didier Deschamps and Antoni Conte revealed that they were injected with drugs usually given to seriously ill psychiatric patients. Dr. Riccardo Agricola has also been accused of administering neoton, intended as a heart treatment. It makes the recent instances of suspension for taking nandrolone - Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids, Frank de Boer - look almost trivial.

The fact is that doping of footballers goes back a very long way indeed, even if in more remote times, the sophisticated drugs of today were unknown. In fact we still don't know just what was in the little silver pills administered by the then Arsenal manager, Leslie Knighton, to his team in 1924. He admitted at all many years later in his memoirs, in a chapter headed I Dope Arsenal for a Cup tie.

Arsenal, still then awaiting the Messianic Herbert Chapman, who'd arrive the following year, were pretty small bear at that time and were going through an unsuccessful period. Into Knighton's office at Highbury one day walked an elegantly dressed Harley Street consultant, a fan of the club, who presented Knighton with a small round box containing those silver pills. They might, he suggested, help to improve the players' form.

Though he had no notion what was inside them, Knighton took them to West Ham where Arsenal were to play a London Derby FA Cup tie. The players swallowed them, whereupon fog closed over Upton Park, the game was called off, and every player plus Kinghton himself was consumed by frightful thirst and surging undischarged energy! When it came to trying the match again, Knighton with difficulty persuaded the players to swallow the pills once more. Again the fog closed in, the game was off, the players were in appalling straits. It was harder still to get them to imbibe the pills a third time, but Knighton succeeded, Arsenal played with colossal drive and energy, but couldn't do better than draw.

The players now rebelled, refusing to take the pills in the replay at Highbury, another draw, and at Chelsea where the play off took place and they were somewhat unlucky to lose. There were no dope tests then; no one was the wiser till Knighton belatedly confessed.

But what of the 1954 World Cup, when against all the odds, Germany won the trophy, beating in the final a Hungarian team which had thrashed them 8-3 in the first stage? After the final, most of the German players were in a parlous condition, suffering afterwards from jaundice, out of the game for months. It was widely whispered that they had been dosed with some substance or another, but what was it? It has never been clarified, and FIFA in those days shared the general innocence over drugs. Dope tests could have given significant results.

Some years later, there were reports that Milan had been doping their players, who had been exhibiting ill effects, but again, there was to be no sequel. Much more recently, of course, Diego Maradona, after some surprisingly active performances at the 1994 World Cup, was thrown out of the competition, when several kinds of ephedrine were found in his urine.

Perhaps it's not surprising that drugs should be used in soccer when top class athletics and swimming have been rife with them. Who knows how the ruthless East Germans got away for years with doping athletes and swimmers, many of whom would later pay a cruelly high price for the way they were exploited? Today, who can look at either sport with any kind of belief that drugs are not being used to distort its results and threaten the users?