Originally published on cbc.ca/sports

Doping has touched nearly every major international sport, from athletics to cycling and, most recently, tennis. Maria Sharapova is just one of several athletes who have been caught using the banned substance meldonium after it was prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Considering this, one might ask how soccer, the world’s most popular sport, has been able to avoid a major doping scandal in recent years. The same pressure to win exists, and one could argue that the pressure in soccer is even greater given the game’s popularity and the money involved— the English Premier League, for example, recently signed a three season, £5.1 billion ($9.6 billion Cdn) broadcasting deal with both Sky and BT Sports.

It’s also worth considering the physical demands that players must endure. The European club season alone runs nearly 10 months, and this is usually followed by international duty at tournaments like the World Cup, Euro, Copa America or perhaps even the Olympics. All told, it’s not unusual for top players to be involved in two or possibly three competitive games per week.

Thus far, the most prominent voice of concern belongs to Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who in 2013 was quoted in The Guardian as saying the sport is “full of legends who are in fact cheats,” and called for a tougher stance against doping in soccer.

“It is very difficult for me to believe that you have 740 players at the World Cup and you come out with zero problems” – Arsène Wenger

“It is very difficult for me to believe that you have 740 players at the [2010] World Cup and you come out with zero problems,” Wenger said.

Wenger spoke up again in 2015 after it was revealed that Arijan Ademi, a player on Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb, who Arsenal was facing in the Champions League, had failed a drug test. In response Wenger said in an interview with L’Équipe that he has “played against many teams” whose players used performance-enhancing drugs and called, yet again, for tougher testing standards.

Greater efforts required

Soccer has had doping problems in the past — most famously when Diego Maradona was ejected from the ’94 World Cup after testing positive for ephedrine. The EPL has had scandals too, especially prior to the introduction of standardized testing.  A former Arsenal manager, Leslie Knighton, even titled a chapter of his autobiography “I Dope Arsenal For a Cup Tie,” in which he admits to giving his players “courage pills” in an attempt to overcome a superior rival in the 1920s.

If these problems existed in the past, then why not in the present? What has made soccer immune to the enhanced exceptionalism that athletes like Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones have displayed? It’s not that records can’t be broken, but the longevity that soccer’s current greats are showing that’s worth questioning.

It’s also worth asking why greater efforts aren’t being made to discover if soccer really does have a doping issue. For over 10 years Spanish courts have been dealing with Operation Puerto, a blood doping scandal involving doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, whose clients included champion cyclists Alejandro Valverde and Jan Ullrich.

While Fuentes is believed to have had several other clients, including soccer players, no attempt has been made to examine any of the approximately 200 bags of blood discovered in his office. Despite multiple lawsuits seeking to stop the process, it’s possible that this evidence will not only go unexamined but ultimately be destroyed this June, once the statute of limitations on this case expires.

Since the ancient Greek Olympics, cheating has been a part of sport. Certain athletes will always seek any advantage in order to win. The next scandal is around the corner, and when it comes, don’t be surprised if soccer is involved.

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