Liam Morgan

La Liga President Javier Tebas is not one to mince his words. During our interview at SPORTELAmerica in Miami earlier this week, he did not shirk any of the questions posed and responded with carefully-crafted and concise answers.

In fact, I found him to be a rather engaging interviewee. Until we got to the subject of doping.

At that point, I found him to be naïve and complacent.

“Of course, there is no doping in football,” the 54-year-old Costa Rican said.

“It is not a big concern for us in Spanish football, we’ve got other problems but doping isn’t one of them.

"We’ve had some financial problems affecting some of the clubs and we have had some issues with match-fixing but not doping."

His attitude is symptomatic of the views of many within the football world. For many years, there seems to have been this feeling that football simply does not have a problem with doping. To paraphrase Tebas, it does not exist.

To suggest one of the world’s famous sports is struggling with it as much as some of its counterparts, most notably athletics and weightlifting, is missing the point. But isn’t it about time football started taking it more seriously?

Back in 2013, Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger gave an astonishing quote relating to doping in football, which he said was “full of legends who are, in fact, cheats”. The Frenchman, one of the game’s most successful managers even if his trophy-laden years are behind him, then expressed his concern about the issue again two years later.

Wenger told French newspaper L’Equipe that Arsenal had played against “many teams” who had used performance-enhancing drugs after Dinamo Zagreb midfielder failed a test following the Croatian side’s Champions League clash with Arsenal in September 2015.

La Liga President Javier Tebas said doping does not exist in Spanish football ©SPORTEL
La Liga President Javier Tebas said doping does not exist in Spanish football ©SPORTEL

Imagine if Wenger's quotes had come from a Russian back in 2015, when the country was facing deserved worldwide condemnation for operating a state-sponsored doping scheme. Imagine the uproar and the indignation. It would have made headlines on television bulletins and back pages worldwide.

Instead, it was largely swept under the rug. In fact, people will probably have forgotten he even said it.

To their credit, the English Football Association (FA) did ask Wenger in no uncertain terms to explain exactly what he meant, but several articles in the British press suggest that should have been the case first time around in 2013, and rightly so.

Fast forward to the present day and the FA are still struggling to get to terms with doping. Having banned Manchester United and England defender Rio Ferdinand for missing a drugs test for eight months in 2003, which was fiercely criticised by Sir Alex Ferguson and led to team-mate Gary Neville, now a media pundit, threatening to strike from the national team, they still appear uncertain as to how they tackle the issue.

What was Ferdinand guilty of? Not failing a test, but being complacent enough to think missing one would not matter.

The governing body in England have twice come under the spotlight in recent months for matters relating to the “D” word and not exactly for positive reasons as their decision to fine both AFC Bournemouth and Manchester City the paltry sum of £35,000 ($43,000/€40,000) for anti-doping breaches has been deemed far too lenient. Unquestionably more benign than bold.

The FA themselves recognise this and have vowed to explore ways in which tougher sanctions, without going beyond the excessive, can be implemented. Both Premier League clubs had failed to provide accurate whereabouts details for their players on three occasions; hardly sample-swapping, admittedly, but offences nonetheless.

They basically forgot to tell the FA where their players were and would be, mostly likely due to an altered training schedule. But forgetfulness stems from complacency and vice versa.

The FA declined to provide the sum of money they spend each year on anti-doping but a spokesperson for the organisation told insidethegames: “Our programme is flexible in order to be able to respond to any emerging doping risk and adaptable to meet the demands of the growing game, with more tests already scheduled for this 2016/17 season and a further increase, again, in 2017/18.”

Arsène Wenger is one of the only managers to speak out about doping in football ©Getty Images
Arsène Wenger is one of the only managers to speak out about doping in football ©Getty Images

The dismissal from the likes of Tebas and Vitaly Mutko, who has been accused of covering up a positive test in Russian football but waved it off like so many of his compatriots, may frustrate yet in a way their nonplussed stance is understandable.

I have long held the opinion that the performance-enhancing benefits of drugs in football are not as clear and as obvious in other sports. In weightlifting, steroids help you get stronger, so you can lift more, while blood-boosters in athletics increase endurance.

Yes, running for longer would be a benefit in football but in athletics, getting around the track as quickly as you can is the sole aim.

In football, you need to combine endurance with technique, skill and on-field intelligence, something performance-enhancers cannot give you (although there are some substances which help focus the mind, a useful trait in any sport).

The beautiful game in this sense is more multi-faceted. You could pump anyone full of drugs to try to improve them as a player, but illicit substances surely can’t help drive the ball 60-yards cross-field to the feet of a team-mate with effortless precision or help them find the top corner with a long-range screamer.

On the flipside, there is a valid argument to suggest any advantage, however small, is still an advantage. Just ask Team Sky, who have long courted "marginal gains" as their key mantra. It turns out even those tiny edges they seek to achieve may not be what they seem, however.

This does not mean football is devoid of any cases. Far from it. No sport, no matter what their International Federation might say, can confidently claim to be totally free from doping. Even horses are injected with banned substances to increase performance.

News emerged last month that Stoke City striker Saido Berahino had served an eight-week drugs ban after testing positive for a recreational drug ©Getty Images
News emerged last month that Stoke City striker Saido Berahino had served an eight-week drugs ban after testing positive for a recreational drug ©Getty Images

The instances of failed tests in the sport often come as the result of recreational drugs, rather than performance-enhancing substances. Take Argentinian legend Diego Maradona, for example. Most thought his over-exuberant celebration after he scored against Greece at the 1994 World Cup demonstrated his pure passion for the game - until FIFA announced shortly after the match that he had failed a drugs test for no fewer than five banned substances.

Former Chelsea and Romania striker Adrian Mutu and ex-Manchester United and Aston Villa goalkeeper Mark Bosnich both succumbed to cocaine during their careers, while a rather disconcerting case this season involved Stoke striker Saido Berahino, who failed for a recreational drug, MDMA, in an out-of-competition test in September and was suspended for eight weeks by the FA.

But for the excellent work of a journalist, we may never even have known - sound familiar? - as the FA, Stoke and West Brom, his parent club at the time, kept it deliberately hush-hush. In fact, Stoke were fully aware of the situation before they forked out £12 million ($15 million/€14 million) for the player in January.

The furore surrounding Berahino highlights the very core of the problem. Football, and not just in England, has always been reticent to deal with any issues connected to doping. It seems we would much rather look the other way. We simply do not want it to be true.

Tebas may claim there is no doping in Spanish football and he believes he had the evidence to support it. "In the last few years, when there was testing going on, there were only three cases," he said.

"In 10,000 or so matches, there were only three players who tested positive."

He may yet have another case to deal with as Sevilla midfielder Samir Nasri, on loan from Manchester City, remains the subject of an investigation from the Spanish Anti-Doping Agency over his use of an IV drip at a clinic in Los Angeles during the winter break. 

Nasri was given an “immunity drip” by American-based Drip Doctors which contained one litre of hydration fluid, far more than the amount allowed under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations, which only permit 50 millilitres unless there is a clear medical reason or if the athlete has been granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE). A ban surely must follow.

Sevilla midfielder Samir Nasri remains the subject of an anti-doping investigation for his use of an IV drip ©Getty Images
Sevilla midfielder Samir Nasri remains the subject of an anti-doping investigation for his use of an IV drip ©Getty Images

On a more global scale, FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura recently claimed world football's governing body were still waiting for details on Russian players implicated in the McLaren Report, before WADA, who would be forgiven for having grown tiresome at the sport's attitude to the subject, stressed this wasn't the case.

Samoura, the first woman and the first African to hold her position, also insisted the doping scandal would not adversely affect next year's World Cup.

"The doping has nothing to do with the two events that we are about to see being staged in this country," she said.

Organisations such as the Institute of National Anti-Doping Organisations recently said Russia should be completely expelled from sport and should be stripped of events like the World Cup, FIFA's showpiece tournament and main money-spinner, until the country apologises for the "institutional conspiracy" outlined in the McLaren Report.

Their calls are likely to fall on deaf ears, as cases of doping within football so often do.