Pep Guardiola is a pretty big name in football and for a while he was a pretty big part of discussions in anti-doping circles, too.
In a moment we will get to what Gary Neville and Roy Keane have aired in their suspicions of Italian opposition in their games for Manchester United in the mid-2000s. But first we should touch on the popular fallacy that football and performance-enhancing drugs share a less complicated relationship than other corners of the athletic sphere.
We will stress here that a failed test in sport does not necessarily mean a cheat, but the broader point is that a failed test in football, proven or otherwise, does not carry anything like the same reputational stigma that it does elsewhere. Not even close.
Guardiola certainly doesn’t and his was a particularly interesting case. He twice tested positive for the steroid nandrolone in 2001, when he played for Brescia in Italy.
Among other consequences of that saga, he was given a seven-month suspended prison sentence, but he maintained his innocence, challenged the findings, lost an appeal that had been based on a contamination defence, and then in 2009 he was acquitted by the courts of any wrongdoing.
Gary Neville and Roy Keane alleged some teams they faced for Man United were not ‘clean’
Neville and Keane’s comments highlight that football has a strange relationship with doping, where a failed test doesn’t carry anything like the same reputational stigma it does elsewhere
Pep Guardiola twice tested positive for the steroid nandrolone in 2001, when he was at Brescia, but mud doesn’t stick in football like in other sports. He maintained his innocence throughout
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The detail of his reprieve was fascinating — during this long process Guardiola’s defence shaped into an argument derived, in part, from ‘unstable urine’ and whether such old samples could be trusted or even retested. It was established they couldn’t.
Today we talk of one of the game’s greatest-ever managers, not the stability of his urine sample. When was the last time you heard about any of that episode?
None of this is to challenge his innocence, but it does illustrate that mud doesn’t stick in football. There are none of those whispers in corners about Guardiola now, which rightly or wrongly isn’t a luxury enjoyed in other sports.
Sir Mo Farah or Sir Bradley Wiggins never tested positive but they have been stalked by innuendo because of the events and associations of their careers.
Far more so than Netherlands stars Edgar Davids, Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam, who all gave bad samples and served suspensions that were reduced after their arguments for accidental ingestion were accepted. It is perhaps because a doping rap in football rarely sticks, or because the noise around such cases is simplified and muted, that an idea has taken hold that the game does not have a doping problem.
I put that to a prominent figure in the anti-doping community, shortly after Paul Pogba’s positive for testosterone last year, and he had a very good laugh about such a notion. The common argument is that it is a skills-based game. Gary Lineker went there a few years ago, saying: ‘Doping is not really an issue in football. Doping doesn’t help players play better.’ He later accepted that as naive, which he had been, because football is so much more than a skill-based game.
It is a recovery game. It is about being in shape to go again and it is about being able to run harder for longer, which is what Neville and Keane noted in their encounters with Italian sides.
‘I would be walking off and I’d be absolutely shattered and I remember it,’ Keane recalled in their podcast, Stick to Football. ‘I’d be looking at players I played against, a couple of Italian teams, and they look like they’ve not even played a match.’
Neville went on to add: ‘When you look back now at what came afterwards in cycling and other sports, and doctors, you think, “Hang on”.
‘We thought at the time — and we were fit, we weren’t drinkers — there’s something not right. We came off the pitch against an Italian team once and thought, “That’s not right”.
‘I know a couple of the lads, mid-2000s, who thought exactly the same.’
Keane and Neville reflected on their particular suspicions when playing against Italian teams
Paul Pogba is currently banned for testing positive for testosterone, which he is appealing
Quite why that would be a wild surprise is anyone’s guess. Neither Keane nor Neville named names or clubs, but it is public record that in 2004, the Juventus doctor Riccardo Agricola was sentenced to 22 months in prison after being found guilty of providing a performance-enhancing drug.
The trial had examined the club’s practices from 1994 to 1998, during which they were Italian champions three times and European champions in 1996, and a time when the then-Roma manager Zdenek Zeman said Italian football needed ‘to get out of the pharmacy’.
It would be easy to talk about an Italian sporting culture, where so much doping has occurred, but we can also look closer to home.
A Mail on Sunday report by Edmund Willison found at least 15 Premier League footballers failed drugs tests between 2015 and 2020 and none of them were given any kind of ban.
Twelve of those tested positive for banned performance-enhancing substances.
It might be the case that football has a bigger issue than it wants to acknowledge. Or that every positive is an accident. Maybe, but you wouldn’t wager a vial of unstable urine on it in any other sport, so why this one?