Tom English: The growing crises in football

THERE is a gulf in achievement between Arsenal and Manchester United that is as wide as the smile on Robin van Persie’s face, but sometimes the measure of a club can’t be judged exclusively by the number of pots and pans sitting in the trophy room.

On silverware alone, Arsene Wenger gets routed every time by Sir Alex Ferguson. On their respective treatment of the growing crises in football, though, Wenger wins, albeit by walkover as Ferguson has failed to turn up.

On Friday, Wenger embraced questions about football’s ills, about the epidemic of match-fixing and the suspicion of doping, the latter subject being one that very few in the game have a stomach for, Ferguson among them. “It’s a real tsunami,” said Wenger of the collective problems that are besetting the game. “I can’t accept it and I always was a believer that there was a lot of cheating going on in our game and that we are not strong enough with what happens, nor with the doping, nor with the corruption of the referees, nor with the match fixing.”

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Wenger moved on to talk specifically about the ongoing trial of Eufemiano Fuentes, pictured right, the doping doctor who has as-yet-undeclared links to prominent footballers in Spain. “They [the Spanish authorities] have found pockets of blood but they don’t even ask to whom does that belong,” said the Arsenal manager of the ludicrous backdrop to the Fuentes case. Described as a doping genius by one of his cycling clients, Fuentes had 200 athletes on his books but only 50-60 of the cases are being examined in court in Madrid. The cyclists, in other words. The footballers and tennis players and sportsmen and women from other codes are suspiciously exempt.

This is the attitude that Wenger railed against on Friday. “They are not interested at all. The justice should go deeper. When you look at the functions of this doctor, it is quite scary. Honestly, I don’t think we do enough [drug-testing in football]. It is very difficult for me to believe that you have 740 players in the World Cup and you come out with zero problems.”

This is not Wenger’s first venture into this debate and nor do you suspect will it be his last. Over the years, he has revisited it after his initial revelations nine years ago. In 2004, he spoke about players arriving at Arsenal from overseas with abnormally high red blood cell counts. He said it was likely that some clubs dope their players without the players even knowing about it. “That kind of thing makes you wonder,” he said.

We have to salute Wenger, for he is one of the very few managers in the world game who has spoken about the threat of doping in football. Some have paid lip service but Wenger speaks from a position of authority, not from a place of denial where most of his peers hang about. Ferguson chief among them.

The Manchester United manager has such immense influence in the game that if he weighed in he could shift the FA and UEFA and FIFA from their torpor on blood testing and biological passports and all the things they need to introduce if they really and truly want to find out how big an issue doping is in their sport. But he hasn’t weighed in. Or, at least, he has, but not in a mature way. From Ferguson, most of what we have heard has been hugely disappointing.

In 2003, when Rio Ferdinand, failed to appear at a routine dope test and was subsequently banned for eight months, Ferguson and his club went to war. They blamed the FA, they blamed the testers, they blamed the panel who found Ferdinand guilty and the media who reported it. Ferguson called the treatment of his player “savage and barbaric” and threatened to go to the law to seek justice on his behalf. The one person he didn’t train his guns on was Ferdinand, a fabulously well-paid player who couldn’t muster the personal responsibility to turn up as requested to a drugs test. He said he forgot. He went shopping. Neither did Ferguson have anything to say about the behaviour of those at United who allowed Ferdinand to drive out of the gates of Carrington and into the Manchester afternoon while a tester from UK Sport was approaching. This was rank amateurism from United, not that Ferguson had anything to say about that.

Wind the clock on and Ferguson’s next notable visit to the doping issue came in 2008, the year that UK Sport introduced more stringent testing protocols. The United manager didn’t approve. While accepting that doping in football was a very bad thing, he said that conforming to the procedures was a “real nuisance to us”.

He elaborated on the whereabouts rule, the requirement on the part of the athlete to provide anti-doping officials with advance notification of their precise whereabouts for a particular hour each day all year round. Other athletes had been adhering to these rules for years.

“If you give a player a day off, you have to notify the FA and tell them where the player will be for one hour during his day off,” said Ferguson. “There are times when you might want to give a player a Sunday off, but you then have to notify the FA and tell that they are not training and furnish them with the addresses where they will be.

“But you know what young players are like. They might be sat in the house when their wife asks if they want to go shopping.” Imagine if a player tried to run that one past Ferguson. “Sorry boss, I forgot to go training. The wife asked to go down the shops.” Hairdryer wouldn’t quite cover it. Industrial-sized blower, maybe.

This was a mealy-mouthed attitude from one of the most influential men in the world game, a mindset of “yeah, doping is not good and we’ll do what we can, but, Christ, this is a load of hassle”. Ferguson went on: “It’s very difficult to do it, but I can tell the FA that it will cost them a fortune to implement all this.” What business is it of Ferguson’s how much it costs the FA? And why is it an inconvenience for footballers on £100,000 a week to declare their whereabouts for one hour out of their day? Are they that lacking in responsibility and professionalism? No, I suspect the majority are not, so why did Ferguson raise these points?

And why, in August 2010, did he revisit the theme of the put-upon manager getting grief from the testers when appearing as a character witness for his former assistant, Carlos Queiroz, when Queiroz was up on a Portuguese FA charge of aggressive and insulting conduct towards dope-testing officials at a national training camp? Ferguson defending his mate is admirable, but once again he poured scorn on the testers doing their job.

He called doping controls “a terrible strain on football managers… Understandably, in Carlos’ situation, preparing for a World Cup as he was, this became a great inconvenience for him.”

A great inconvenience. How sad that Ferguson sees it this way. How glad we should be that Wenger, for one, has the courage to talk about doping in his sport in a way that you could only admire. There should be many more like him. Football’s tragedy is that there are not.