Armstrong scandal: Cycling is not the only sport with a drugs problem says top footballer

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Footballer Joey Barton has acknowledged that football has a drugs problem with both recreational and performance enhancing substances.

The admission comes in a surprisingly insightful article on the Lance Armstrong affair from a top player in another sport who is also often in the headlines for the wrong reasons, and coincides with The Sun reporting that more than 100 former footballers are currently serving prison sentences due to their involvement with drugs cartels operating out of Latin America and Continental Europe.

Barton’s piece, called ‘Armstrong: The Fall of an Iconic Sporting Superstar?’ gives food for thought on several levels. First, that it was written by Barton, a player who polarises opinion, much as Armstrong has done.

The former Manchester City, Newcastle United and QPR player is undoubtedly a gifted footballer, but his career to date is better known for the regular episodes of thuggery both against opponents on the pitch and team mates away from it than rather than thoughtful comment pieces on the big issues of the day.

Barton, who currently plies his trade at Olympique de Marseille’s Stade du Velodrome, reflects in his piece about how he had been inspired by Armstrong’s story of his recovery from cancer to win the Tour de France, and speculates over what might have pushed him to take performance enhancing drugs.

Nothing new there, and he does make some statements with which knowledgeable cycling fans could take issue, but most would agree with his assertion that while “wider usage [of drugs within the peloton] gives Armstrong some mitigation… it cannot make [it] correct, ethical or in the true spirit of fair play.

“There is a dark side to cycling,” he says, but moving onto the mot revelatory part of his post, he adds, “I believe that there’s a dark side to sport, a side that people neither want to believe or choose to ignore” – and that includes football.

According to Barton, where there is big money involved there will always be rule bending cheating and doping. He links doping to the financial gains to be made in high profile sports such as “baseball, boxing, athletics, NFL, horse racing,” and of course football, citing instances of players being involved in drugs scandals, whether recreational or performance enhancing.

“It’s there; all you have to do is look,” he insists.

“For example, have you ever wondered how some of the top Italian league players have played at such a high level for so long, this is a bunch of players at the top who are (or were, when playing) fast heading towards 40 and running around like someone in their early 30s, and playing up to 80 games each season.

“Nobody, me included, can say that the club or the players are using illegal substance to enhance performance, but it does pose an interesting question, don’t you think?

“An England international told me about ‘vitamin’ injections that the England team were administered during the 1998 World Cup,” adds Barton.

“This guy took one before the Argentina game and describes the feeling as though he couldn’t run out of energy. Vitamin C, maybe?

“I am not suggesting ‘foul play’ – but I do think it’s important to ask the question. Where there’s big money people will bend, manipulate or simply break the rules out of greed.

“My personal experience of drugs tests, as a professional athlete, is that they have only ever taken a urine sample from me. Only urine, in numerous tests over 10+ years of competing at elite level sport,” he continues, contrasting his experience with what he has learnt about cycling, “where they frequently test by taking blood from the athletes. Sometimes storing that blood for years.

“I have never had blood taken during my whole career! Although, I would think my urine and that of lots of other footballers, well be stored somewhere.”

Adding that “I have never had a hair sample taken,” he asks, “Surely, in the most watched sport in the world, where hundreds of millions of pounds exchanged hands ever few months, ‘Is taking only urine, literally taking the piss?’”

“The business of sport is no different,” he asserts, to what he sees as cheating in other walks of life, whether blatant, such as the actions of some bankers during the financial crisis, the MPs expenses scandal, or more nuanced and arguably within the rules, for example the actions of estate agents, mobile phone companies and energy suppliers.

“The few will always spoil it for the many,” he insists.

He goes on to take Nike to task for what he calls its "arrogance to stick by a man whose whole career appears to be built on lies and fraudulent actions. What does this say about one of the world’s leading brands? What kind of example does this set the youngsters of today?”

He concludes by noting that donations to Armstrong’s Livestrong charity have soared since USADA banned him for life, adding: “I for one though still believe in the inspirational Armstrong story of cancer survivor to battling competitor, a hero of character and hard graft, you can’t take that amount of effort away from him. Drugs alone don’t make you world champion, you still have to put the work in.”

Meanwhile, The Sun reports that according to the charity Xpro, which helps former professional footballers, at least 126 British former footballers – nearly all of them under the age of 25 and men who failed to make the grade in the sport – are serving prison sentences, mostly for drug-related offences including trafficking.

According to Xpro chief executive Geoff Scott, “Drugs are far and away the biggest reason why so many ex-players are now in gaol.

“Some have been dealing drugs worth millions and have connections with drug cartels in Colombia and Holland.

“When one ex-player was arrested police discovered a machine gun and a bag full of more than £100,000 in cash. It’s that serious," he said.

According to Xpro, those most vulnerable to succumbing to the temptation of the money offered by drug organisations are players who failed to break through to the top level – and the rewards it brings – after being rejected by their clubs.

The charity says that they are attracted by the promises of easy money and wealth similar to that they may have found through football, while there are also cases of retired players looking to maintain the lifestyle they enjoyed while in the sport.

“We are trying to contact all the ex-players in prison to see if we can help them during their sentences and also when they are released,” said Scott.

“As far as we are aware there are 126. But that’s the ones we know about and we fear there may be even more."

A report published by the World Anti Doping Agency in 2007 established clear links between criminal organisations and the supply of performance enhancing drugs, and since then both Interpol and national law enforcement agencies have highlighted that the problem is increasing.

The 2004 doping scandal at Cofidis that resulted in David Millar, among others, being banned for EPO use, also had links to recreational drugs, with four riders and a physio being arrested for possession of cocaine.

When the same team’s rider Remy di Gregorio was arrested during this year’s Tour de France for alleged doping, French press speculation also linked him to a police investigation of a Marseille-based cocaine and performance enhancing drugs trafficking ring.