Almost seven years after Spanish police bust in on his home and seized anabolic steroids, transfusion equipment and 200 refrigerated bags of blood, Dr Eufemiano Fuentes will go on trial for offences against public health in Madrid tomorrow.
This takes us back to Operation Puerto in 2006. At the heart of it was Fuentes – El Importante as he liked to be known or “a one-man Wal-Mart of doping,” as the cyclist, and his former client, Tyler Hamilton, once called him.
The trial is due to last several months and it will pore over one of the most widespread doping programmes in the history of sport. Or, at least, it will pore over one element of that doping programme. The cycling element. There were supposedly 200 names on the Fuentes client list and there were footballers and tennis players among them. Some players from some of Spain’s biggest clubs, it has been said. And yet they have been given a pardon by the Spanish government. Despite Fuentes having freely admitted that he treated footballers and tennis players as well as cyclists, it is only the bike riders – just over 50 of them – who will come under scrutiny.
Nothing will be said about the rest.
For those who harbour deep suspicions about the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in certain parts of the football world, the trial represents a missed opportunity on the most massive scale. It also raises some serious questions.
Last September former professional cyclist Jesus Manzano, a client of Fuentes, said that he had seen “well-known footballers” visit Fuentes at his clinic. Who were they? And why were they there? Were they getting EPO (red blood cell-boosting hormone Erythropoietin) or blood transfusions like his cyclists? Or something else? Presumably when Sepp Blatter asked for a copy of the Puerto file he was concerned, but, since then, nothing. The Spanish government, for reasons known only to themselves, decided against scrutinising the footballers.
There has not been a satisfactory explanation for why they came to that decision.
The Spanish government has been accused of suppressing evidence that links footballers to Fuentes, the World Anti-Doping Agency effectively calling it a cover-up.
“Frustrating and disappointing,” was how David Howman, WADA’s director general, described it. “We’ve been banging our heads against a brick wall to get access to the evidence that was gathered.”
A few years ago, Fuentes was quizzed about his football clients and which clubs they belonged to. “I can’t tell, I have received death threats,” he said. “I was told that, if I told certain things, my family and myself could have serious problems. I’ve been threatened three times and it’s not going to happen a fourth time.
“There are sports against which you cannot go against, because they have access to very powerful legal means to defend themselves. And it could also cost the current chief of the sport his post.”
Fuentes was once an athlete himself – a hurdler. He became a gynaecologist before moving into the sphere of sports medicine in East Germany, Poland and then back home in Spain, where you had to be some kind of idiot to get done for performance-enhancing drugs.
Bike riders used to say that you could tape EPO syringes to your forehead and not get busted in Spain. To illustrate the point, in 2000-01, Fuentes was appointed chief doctor of Las Palmas, a Primera Division club. After a match between Las Palmas and Rayo Vallecano, EPO-filled syringes were found in the Las Palmas dressing room. Fuentes left his position at the club soon afterwards but nothing more was done about the incriminating syringes.
Jorg Jaksche, the former cyclist and one who will give evidence in the coming months, called Fuentes a doping genius. “He told me he trained in East Germany, told me he worked with the top soccer teams etc,” said Jaksche.
And the Spanish government have decided that Fuentes cannot be questioned about his practices with footballers? Again, you are left asking “Why?” and “What are they afraid of?”
Doping in football goes back a long way. Maybe pre-1960s, but that is where we pick it up. As a player, Ferruccio Mazzola always lived in the shadow of his older and more celebrated brother, Sandro, but, nine years ago, when he published his autobiography and wrote of doping in football, Ferruccio was suddenly propelled into the limelight.
It was Ferruccio’s contention that his manager at Inter Milan, Helenio Herrera, administered some kind of performance-enhancing drug to his players and that, when Herrera twigged that some of them were spitting out the tablet he gave them, he started to put it in their coffee. Ferruccio called it Il Caffe Herrera.
The book caused a storm, not least in his brother’s household. I met Sandro in 2007 and, in the three years since publication, he hadn’t spoken to Ferruccio. “We all have memories,” said Sandro. “We all remember things differently and I think he [Ferruccio] was confused. My team-mates were very angry about this. They wanted to take it to court but dropped it in the end.”
Brother against brother in Milan, but these stories have come in a steady flow over the years. The Juventus doping scandal was an epic and convoluted affair, the club’s former doctor, Riccardo Agricola, being found guilty of administering EPO and other products to a star-studded team which won three Serie A titles and one Champions League. Agricola appealed and won but his victory was later modified.
The strange conclusion to it all was that, yes, the Juve players of that era were given performance-enhancing drugs – but nobody was at fault.
High-profile players have been brought into football’s doping story. Jaap Stam tested positive for the steroid nandrolone, Edgar Davids, too. When Davids was caught, he was the eighth Serie A player that season (2000-01) to test positive for a banned substance. In 2006, the former Marseille player Jean-Jacques Eydelie wrote in his autobiography that his team were doped before playing the 1993 Champions League final.
Marcel Desailly, World Cup winner with France in 1998, has spoken out about performance enhancing drugs in football. “Doping exists in football,” he said. “That’s so obvious it would be stupid to deny it.” In 2004, Arsene Wenger caused a minor storm when he spoke of “abnormally high blood values of new players [coming to Arsenal]”. He said it was likely that “some clubs dope players without their knowledge”. Former Parma midfielder Matias Almeyda wrote in his autobiography that players at Parma were given “vitamin injections” that left him feeling he could “jump as high as the ceiling”.
There is also the troubling case of Luis Garcia del Moral, another of the notorious doping doctors in cycling’s grim story. Del Moral was one of those who helped Lance Armstrong become the greatest sports cheat ever known and, as a consequence, he is banned for life from any sport. And yet Del Moral has claimed in the past that he worked with Barcelona and Valencia. Barça have denied that he was on their payroll but couldn’t say for certain that individual players from the club’s past didn’t use his services. Valencia have said next to nothing about Del Moral.
So many confirmed cases of doping and so many warning lights flashing and yet, when Fuentes appears in court on Monday, football is off the agenda.
Fuentes once said of himself that people would recognise his genius one day and might give him the Nobel Prize or build a monument commemorating his achievements. “But they might kill me as well.”
Right now, you’d settle for a question rather than a kill.
“Tell us about your association with footballers and the treatment you gave them.”
The Spanish government have ensured that it cannot be asked.