Tom English: Spanish football clouded by doping claims

IT HAS been a compelling week in Spanish football. Then again, most weeks are.

IT HAS been a compelling week in Spanish football. Then again, most weeks are.

Lionel Messi scored for the 12th consecutive game in La Liga and brought his tally for the season to 32, while Barcelona’s great rivals Real Madrid added to the commotion by losing at 16th place Granada, the winning goal scored by Cristiano Ronaldo. An own goal, that is.

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Now the unending drama switches from domestic to European competition and here again great theatre is guaranteed. Barcelona are about to face AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League and Real Madrid are readying themselves for the visit of Manchester United. It’s one great player after another and one thrilling spectacle after another in Spain. It’s no wonder that the other person of the week in their game, Inaki Badiola, didn’t get a particularly warm reception when he said his piece. For Badiola offered a glimpse of the underbelly of the Spanish game and nobody really wanted to take a look. Nobody ever does when the subject matter is doping.

Badiola is a former president of Real Sociedad and whether the establishment likes it or not, his status gives him credibility. In an interview with the AS newspaper last week, Badiola revealed that in the early years of the millennium, in a regime previous to his own, Real Sociedad employed the infamous doping doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, who is currently on trial in Madrid as part of the famed Operation Puerto. Badiola stated that he discovered annual payments to Fuentes of almost €328,000 and that he sacked two of the club’s doctors when he realised what had been going on. The payments were repeated for a number of years.

Another newspaper, El Pais, has published documents which they claim show that El Real (Sociedad) used the services of Fuentes.

To add to the intrigue, the previous regime that Badiola was talking about (or one of them) was that of former president Jose Luis Astiazaran, who is now president of the body that governs La Liga. Astiazaran has since issued a complete denial of Badiola’s accusations, but Badiola has not backed off one inch.

Badiola said that the use of performance-enhancing drugs appeared widespread at the club. “Real Sociedad acquired medicines for €328,000 [£282,000] that were not listed in the accounts,” said Badiola. He then sacked doctors, Eduardo Escobar and Antxon Gorrotxategi. “They acquired substances which were not authorised,” Badiola said. “In my years, 2008 and 2009, there were no strange medical practices. We did an audit of the previous six years. We have not gone against the players and we do not know if all were subjected to such practices. No names were mentioned. Our investigation was directed against the physicians. I think in football doping may not be as necessary as, for example, in cycling.

“The system is poorly regulated, there is a failure and doping is way ahead, with doctors who can cover it up perfectly. There are urine tests which does not seek EPO, which denotes a neglect and an unwillingness to clean up this sport... What is certain is that, in 2008, our board publicly denounced doctors Eduardo Escobar and Antxon Gorrotxategi because, in the six seasons before us, at least, the directors paid for medicines or products which at that moment were categorised as used in doping. These were acquired with dirty money on the black market.”

Astiazaran said in reply that he had no knowledge or suspicion of illegal practices in his time as president from 2001-2005 and insisted that had he seen anything he would have taken “proper forceful and diligent action”. He accused Badiola of dealing in falsities and reserved the right to sue.

Wherever the truth sits, it is a fact that Fuentes is on trial at the moment and it is another fact that he has admitted to treating not just cyclists but more than 100 other athletes from different sports, including football and tennis. Fuentes has said that he didn’t give his athletes performance-enhancing drugs, but there is a procession of bike riders who will testify that he did, that he was something of an overlord in the doping game, a man who used to refer to 
himself as El Importante.

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One of his cycling clients, the self-confessed doper Jesus Manzano, has said in the past that he saw “well-known footballers” visiting Fuentes at his clinic. Who were they? Well, we’re not allowed to find out. The Fuentes trial has been deemed a cycling-only affair. The names of the other clients who visited one of the great godfathers of doping will remain a secret unless the trial judge has a change of mind.

All of this breeds suspicion and intrigue. Why no names of the other athletes on the books of a man that another cycling client, Jorg Jaksche, described as a “doping genius”? Why no insistence on transparency across the board? “Doping 
exists in football,” said Marcel Desailly, the World Cup winner with France in 1998. “That’s so obvious it would be stupid to deny it.” But plenty do. 
Plenty in Spain for starters.

When Badiola revealed his version of Real Sociedad’s past he was met with denial from the very top of the game in Spain. “Thanks be to God, there is no doping,” the president of the Spanish FA, Angel Maria Villar, told El Pais. “Well, very little, so little that the cases given are just an anecdote to an anecdote. In Spain, players take many tests each weekend and nobody is found to be positive. That is the reality. The rest is just talk, talk, talk...”

In dismissing the story, Villar, also vice-president of Uefa and Fifa, sounded like the men of the UCI who once declared as a fact that Lance Armstrong was not doping. “Never, never, never...”

Villar had an ally in Vicente Del Bosque, manager of the national team. Del Bosque said: “I have not seen (doping) before, and I don’t think I will see it. My eyes have never seen it. It is a 
subject that I prefer to ignore.”

Spain as a sporting country is notoriously lax in the battle against dopers. Tyler Hamilton once wrote that in Spain a juiced-up cyclist could go around the country with an EPO syringe taped to his forehead and still never get busted. There is a permissive attitude to doping there, a reluctance to investigate suspicion and come down heavily on the guilty. The comments of Villar and Del Bosque speaks to this psychology of indifference.

It’s just all “talk, talk, talk...” There is “no doping...” Del Bosque has never seen it and he doesn’t think he ever will. Ever? He doesn’t think that a doper will ever penetrate the holy land of Spanish football?

They already have, of course. Quite how Del Bosque has forgotten the case of Athletic Bilbao’s Carlos Gurpegi is hard to fathom, for it was an epic saga that stretched on for four years and bounced around from court to court, commanding headline after headline before the midfielder’s two-year ban for testing positive for the banned substance nandrolone was finally upheld.

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“Talk, talk, talk...” There was plenty of it surrounding the case of Everton Giovanella of Celta Vigo and Francisco Borja Aguiretxu also of Celta Vigo and Frank de Boer of Barcelona and Nauret Perez of Las Palmas, all of whom tested positive for banned substances in Spanish football, the very place where Del Bosque has spent much of his footballing life and has gone through it all seemingly without ever noticing these stories. De Boer was initially banned for a year for testing positive for nandrolone. It was a very big deal in 2001. Del Bosque must have missed it. Strange, though, given that De Boer was a Barca player at the time and Del Bosque was managing Real Madrid.

There is also the unexplained case of Luis Del Moral, another of the A-list doping doctors in cycling and his assertion that he has in the past worked with Barcelona and Valencia players. What work? And who with? Del Moral is not likely to talk given that he is banned for life from practising in any sport sanctioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Shouldn’t the Spanish authorities want to know?

Badiola is merely a messenger, but you know what they do with messengers. It would have been heartening to hear Villar, the supposed protector of the sport, coming out last week in response to Badiola and saying that he wanted to meet him and get to the bottom of what exactly it is he is alleging and what evidence he has to support it. Instead, with a depressing predictability, he attempted to rubbish him.