Offside, 30 October

When it comes to drugs policy, the Football Association is off its head.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

In my experience people on drugs tend to talk a lot of rubbish. But if they’ve just smoked a big fat spliff or hoovered up a couple of lines of coke at least they’ve got an excuse. There is, however, no excuse for the unadulterated tosh spouted by the football authorities about drugs.

Take the Rio Ferdinand affair. New FA chief executive Mark Palios, a man evidently on a mission to stamp his authority on the game, reportedly said that he wants the case to become ‘a battleground on doping’. Michel D’Hooghe, head of Fifa’s medical committee, has insisted – before any charges have even been levelled at Rio, let alone proven – that ‘Ferdinand certainly has to be punished’. This tough talk suggests that the football authorities are determined, whatever the merits of his case, to make an example of the Manchester United defender. Players’ union chief Gordon Taylor is entirely correct to complain about a ‘witch-hunt’ and ‘hysteria’ over the issue of drugs.

Ferdinand has also been subjected to a vicious trial by media. His excuse for missing a random drug test – that he simply forgot – has been picked apart in the press, with two Sunday newspapers even going as far as to obtain Ferdinand’s mobile phone records on which his defence rests. But what was the crime? Forgetting to take a drug test? Going to Harvey Nicks after training? It’s not as if Rio has been caught dealing crack to primary school children, is it?

And what if Ferdinand did take recreational drugs? Would that be the end of football as we know it? I don’t think so. It was recently reported that two professional footballers have tested positive for ecstasy and coke this season. Both these drugs are illegal but hardly performance enhancing. Just think about it. What possible advantage is to be gained from having some luvved-up buffoon staggering around the pitch having just necked a couple of pills? Arms in the air, shirt off, hugging everyone – and that’s before a goal has even been scored.

And what about cocaine? Yes, some players aren’t vocal enough on the pitch, but can you imagine what coke might do to them? They’d be yapping away 10-to-the-dozen to all and sundry: ball boys, stewards, St John’s ambulancemen, the lot. Talking bollocks, of course. Plus they’d be sneaking off to the dressing room toilets every 10 minutes for a cheeky little top up.

Much the same can be said for smoking marijuana. You want your players pumped up and ‘in the zone’ not vegged out in the dressing room, boring their team-mates with their interminable drug stories, or munching all the Wagon Wheels at half-time. And I can’t begin to imagine how dropping acid would affect a footballer. I suspect – just a wild guess here – that it wouldn’t do them much good. I could go on but you get my drift.

Of course, football clubs are quite entitled to punish players whose ‘refuelling’ habits render them in no fit state to perform. But what if a footballer’s performance is not impaired by drug use? Should he be punished or sacked as Fergie has threatened to do with any United player caught taking drugs? Personally, I don’t see why players who use recreational drugs should be treated any differently to those who enjoy a few pints in their leisure time. If it doesn’t adversely affect their game, what’s the problem?

Diego Maradona reportedly shovelled half of Colombia up his nose during his free time but was the greatest player in the world. ‘I prefer someone who uses cocaine on a Wednesday and plays at the weekend’, Eric Cantona said of Maradona, in one of his less psychedelic pronouncements. ‘They play to win. They play well to help their team to win so they can be proud of it.’

However, even Cantona balked at defending sportsmen who take performance-enhancing drugs. ‘How can they look at themselves in the mirror?’ he asked. I don’t agree. Of course drugs that boost strength or endurance will give track-and-field athletes a crucial advantage over their opponents (though they cannot prevent athletes – Dwain Chambers please take note – from choking under pressure). However, this could just as well be an argument for allowing everyone to take performance-enhancing drugs.

There is probably even less reason for outlawing performance-enhancing chemicals in football where tactics, teamwork, and technical skill count for so much. Indeed, as spiked editor Mick Hume argues in The Times, ‘nobody has invented a drug that can make you dribble the ball like Diego’ (and he doesn’t mean Diego Forlan) (1). But when it comes to the question of drugs, reason is in very short supply. The moral hysteria that surrounds the issue makes a mature discussion of drugs in sport all but impossible. And that, as the stoners are fond of saying, is a total bummer.

(1) Let’s inject some sense into this. No drug can make a champion out of a clodhopper, The Times, 7 October 2003

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Topics Politics


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