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Oct 16, 2012

Too good to be true?

Lance Armstrong's unmasking as perhaps the biggest cheat in sporting history was a slow process. It took the bravery of those who saw through the facade to arrive at this point, despite the obfuscation of his lawyers now asking for lie-detector tests. In the words of the United States Anti-Doping Authority, he led "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen".

Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage led the charge against Armstrong and almost cashed in their livelihood along the way. They remained determined in the face of bullying and ostracism by those happy to stay on the gravy train.

One of the most serious charges of cycling's latest unmasking is the allegation that the sport's governing body, the UCI, had colluded with Armstrong. Legal action over the allegation between UCI and Kimmage is currently pending, but that process may have been overtaken in the face of USADA's forensic exposure of the Armstrong machine.

Cycling, yet again, has been exposed as a sport for cheats, discredited as little but a mobile pharmacy, but can other sports be so sure of their probity? Saturday saw Edgar Davids man the bench at Barnet FC in England's League Two in his new role as player-coach. The North London outpost, it was agreed, had secured the services of a legend of the game. Were Davids to be a cyclist, or even an Olympic athlete, he would be likely to be granted the prefix of being a 'drug cheat'.

In May 2001, while a Juventus player, he was suspended by FIFA when he tested positive for nandrolone, a banned steroid. He served a lengthy ban but then went on to play for Barcelona, Internazionale and Tottenham and was named by Pele and FIFA in 2004 as one of 125 greatest living footballers.

Were he to be a Dwain Chambers, a Tim Montgomery, a David Millar or an Alexander Vinokourov, then perhaps there would be an asterisk against his name. Diego Maradona, who even Pele had to include on his list, ended his World Cup career when testing positive for a stimulant, yet his legend lives on.

Davids was one of a spate of players who tested positive around that time, with others including Jaap Stam, Frank De Boer and Pep Guardiola, a list that could also double as a who's who of star players of that era. De Boer and Guardiola - who were later cleared of the nandrolone charges on appeal - are also regarded as a couple of prime coaches of the modern day, leading Ajax and Barcelona respectively with distinction.

The spate of nandrolone tests of that time have subsided, and tennis player Greg Rusedski was one of a number of sportsmen who had his 'positive' overturned, but football's attitude to the tests was lax at best.

The aforementioned players' bans were seen as inconvenient interludes before a big-earning career could resume. The same went for Rio Ferdinand, who was banned for eight months for skipping a test in 2004 but went on to captain both Manchester United and England.

A sport's attitude to drugs is determined by its governance, and FIFA and UEFA took their time to sign up to the World Anti-Doping Agency, and even got them to bend their rules on access to players. Sepp Blatter had demanded privacy during holidays and eventually it was agreed that those deemed to be at risk would be targeted - players recovering from injuries or those who had previously tested positive.

"If there is any suspicion, then anybody can be tested anywhere at any time," FIFA chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak said when the deal was finally brokered in 2009.

Football's problem is that suspicion is growing. Allegations, often from rival camps, have been growing about Barcelona, a team whose perpetual-motion play has at times looked superhuman.

Though Guardiola overturned his ban as a player, he has been subject to a rumour mill that takes in his former club's reported links to Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor at the heart of Operation Puerto, which lifted the lid on cycling's use of blood transfusions and EPO.

Innuendo is part of modern football's make-up, and there is no proof that Barcelona, or anyone else, have systematically doped. In the 1990s, Juventus, the dominant team in Italy and Europe, were subject to more lurid accusations, at a time when Italian cycling was rife with drugs such as EPO and human growth hormone. Juve's club doctor, Riccardo Agricola, was eventually cleared on appeal.

Nevertheless, it seems almost inconceivable that someone in football, a far richer sport than cycling and with even higher stakes, has never fallen prey to the type of rule-bending that Armstrong and co once carried out as a matter of course. Perhaps the game needs a pair like Walsh and Kimmage to remain doggedly on the case. But with the game's vested interests so much deeper than cycling, that task looks almost impossible. No-one wants this gravy train to stop.

However, what Walsh, Kimmage and co eventually proved is that when something looks too good to be true, it usually is.


Football may be reaching the point when Twitter becomes more trouble than it is worth. Following Rio Ferdinand and Ashley Cole's transgressions, and Ryan Bertrand's foul mouth, we then had the cautionary tale of Duncan Jenkins and Liverpool FC.

We don't yet know the truth of what happened, and former colleague Jen Chang has dismissed the affair as "nonsense" - but what we can discern is that social media is now being closely monitored by certain clubs, so much so that a director of communications felt it necessary to meet the individual behind what seemed like a joke account.

If there is a moral to any of this then it is that it should never be forgotten that Twitter is a public forum. It may not seem real, and it may seem a bit of a laugh, but some people are taking it very seriously indeed.


Last week saw the Football Association finally unveil St George's Park as a new dawn for coaching in England. It is to be hoped that the facilities, hailed as unmatchable across the globe, do not become a white elephant amid the self-interest of clubs jealously guarding their own talent.

Meanwhile, only England retain a realistic chance of representing these isles at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Scotland are sunk, and Welsh hopes were kept alive only by beating them.

Northern Ireland were no-hopers before we began, while Ireland, who can be included by dint of almost all of their players plying their trade in England, were humiliated by Germany.

While Roy Hodgson has an ever-shallower pool of talent to call from, with foreign players now dominating Premier League squads, the country's neighbours, where the English league's auxiliary talent used to come from, have been hit harder still.

Follow John Brewin on Twitter at @johnbrewinespn

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