The FA defends its anti-doping policy
One of the more absurd things I've heard Sepp Blatter say is that football doesn't have a drugs problem.
It was a while ago that he offered that observation, at the time when Fifa and World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) were wrestling over compliance with the world anti-doping code, and how they would manage disciplinary measures. I was never convinced that football had actually embraced the code fully, but Wada seemed satisfied in the end.
Blatter's remarks seemed to be entirely based, at the time, on a lack of positive drug tests at successive major tournaments. (Before, incidentally, the recent Women's World Cup where five members of the North Korean team failed tests for performance enhancing drugs, resulting in the team's ban from the next competition in Canada in 2015.)
It's an absurd remark because football and footballers are no different from any other sport, in that where there's financial reward for success, there's doping. To deny that because no-one's been caught is meaningless. We all know sprinter Marion Jones never failed a drugs test, but by her own admission, was a cheat.
Football in fact has to wrestle with another reality, the temptation of "recreational" drug use, out of competition, among players. Take any bunch of well paid young men with time on their hands, in a have-it-all-now culture, and it's a fair bet some of them will dabble in cocaine, ecstasy, and cannabis. Sorry to state the obvious, but sometimes it's necessary.
A player using cocaine, a strong stimulant, before a match would risk a two year drugs ban under the Wada rules. Post-match, out of the competition context, Wada's rules don't include cocaine on the banned list.
Scotland striker Garry O'Connor was named by Channel 4's Despatches programme as having served a ban after testing positive for cocaine while at Birmingham City
The Football Association (FA), however take a different view. They have, for several years, been running a separate drug testing programme based on the pragmatic realisation that temptation is out there, and that drugs scandals (even of the weekend post-match nightclub indiscretion variety) can harm the game's image, and dent its desire to provide role models for kids.
The testing programme isn't a secret, but its results are kept confidential to allow for treatment and rehabilitation of offenders, or so the FA argue. They don't have to do it, their only obligation in respect of doping is to ensure the Wada code is followed, and the use of performance enhancing drugs is tackled.
Channel 4's Dispatches programme, "The truth about drugs in football" took on the FA over a perceived lack of transparency, naming several players who'd been caught through the recreational testing programme. I'm no TV critic, so I won't share with you my thoughts on the programme, but I did feel it raised some legitimate questions about the way the FA manages its doping policy and I put them to the FA.
On the issue of transparency over the frequency of testing for performance enhancing drugs faced by players and particularly by the game's elite performers in the Premier League, the FA say:
"The FA do not report a breakdown of tests per league, and numbers of games tested, in order to prevent clubs and players being able to estimate when their club's quota of tests has been completed, thus minimising the risk of potential doping. To disclose this information would be detrimental to the testing programme.
"We do however, do more testing in the Premier League than any other league, but test all four professional leagues to ensure the whole of professional football is subject to an anti-doping regime rather than just the very top level. Fans of League Two football have as much right to believe that the game they pay to watch is free from doping as any Premier League club fan. Ditto the players - all professional playing fields should be level and drug-free, not just the top league."
The programme discovered that since 2007, testers from UK Anti-Doping have recorded 240 incomplete tests at training grounds where their officials have been unable to find players they want to test. In respect of the responsibility of clubs to notify the testers about any changes to their training schedules, the FA revealed four clubs have been fined for breaches of the rules.
"For clubs, we operate a three strikes policy in any two year period. If a player is on a squad list and not present for the Doping Control Officer and the player has been targeted for testing, this would constitute a missed test strike if the player has not updated his whereabouts and provided an alternative location and hour slot for testing prior to the start of the training session from which he is absent."
Regarding any obligation on a selling club to inform a buying club that a player had tested positive for drugs under the FA's programme of testing for recreational drug use, the FA said, "They do in-competition or for performance enhancing drugs. I make the point once more that The FA doesn't even need to do this - Wada does not demand it. In the NFL a player could take cocaine out of competition and it never be tested or sanctioned. Clubs can, of course, ask the question of the player."
The bigger picture from all of this is the reality that recreational drug use remains a grey area for the sports doping authorities, who limit their responsibilities to the brief they were given, to tackle doping in sport.
In the background lies the tension with governments who provide half of Wada's (modest) funding largely because their anti-drugs message to wider society is helped by having sport that's clean, and where drug use is forbidden.