Off-Pitch Focus: Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho’s suspension after failing a drugs test is cause for deep concern

Liverpool star’s failed drug test should not be taken lightly.
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As the Premier League season approached its climax, the suspension of Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho for failing a drugs test didn’t attract substantial column inches. Football has flirted with doping controversy but can the sport be as squeaky clean as its track record suggests? It may be time to bolster controls and take doping in football more seriously.

French international Sakho last played for his club side in the Merseyside Derby on April 20, in which Liverpool trounced their neighbours Everton 4-0 at Anfield. The central defender tested positive on March 17, after Liverpool’s 1-1 Europa League draw with Manchester United. Football journalists have reported the available facts of the case but the coverage has been minimal, certainly when compared it to the eight-month ban Rio Ferdinand received in 2003 for missing a drugs test.

It is believed Sakho had been taking a fat burning drug that contains a banned substance. The 26-year-old did not challenge the results, and received a provisional 30-day suspension from Uefa, now extended worldwide by Fifa. Significantly, if Sakho was to receive a ban of similar length to the six-month suspension Kolo Toure received in 2011 for an apparently similar offence, the Frenchman would miss the upcoming Euro 2016 Championship in his country of birth.

International team-mates, including Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Blaise Matuidi, have come out in support of Sakho but former Liverpool star Steve McManaman thinks the defender has let the club down.

“It is inexcusable to be taking stuff and not checking with a doctor,” said McManaman. “He probably thought it was fine, he probably didn’t think about it at the time, but he’s certainly going to pay for it.”

While Ferdinand’s ban drew headlines because of his status as a Manchester United star and an England international, often forgotten is the five-month ban handed down just a year earlier to former Red Devils defender Jaap Stam. The Dutchman failed a drugs test just weeks after leaving United in 2001 when nandrolone was found in his urine sample. Nandrolone is an anabolic steroid, used by many a disgraced sprinter, including Marion Jones. Another Netherlands star, Edgar Davids, tested positive for nandrolone is the same year as Stam and was handed a similarly lenient stint of four months on the sidelines.

Marion Jones was forced to retire from track and field, relinquish five Olympic medals and even ended up spending some time in prison in the fallout from her misdeeds. There’s more than a slight difference between a 100 metre sprint and 90 minutes of football or a full season of football for that matter but how did Stam and Davids end up with no more than a slap on the wrist?

There are so few cases of failed drugs tests or doping in football that they are generally seen as exceptions to the rule or to the culture. Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher supports this assessment.

“There seems to be a lot more of that goes on in other sports, not something you’d expect from football,” said Carragher in response to Sakho’s ban.
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Another case considered an outlier is that of Adrian Mutu, who had made just 27 appearances in a Chelsea shirt when his contract was terminated after failing a drugs test. In that instance it was cocaine but later, during his time with Fiorentina, the Romanian striker received a one-year ban, eventually reduced to six months, for using the anti-obesity drug sibutramine.

Drugs like sibutramine do not benefit an athlete in any significant way. It is likely that whatever Sakho had in his bloodstream didn’t either. Liverpool fans might argue it depends which of Sakho’s performances this season you use as a sample but that’s a whole other debate.

The question is whether the sport needs to start taking the potential impacts of drug-taking and doping more seriously. In track and field sports, due to competition cycles, a suspension at the wrong time could shatter Olympic ambitions and possibly end a career. Footballers can play at the top for 15 or more years. A few months in the director’s box is no deterrent.

McManaman notes: “There are more medics around players than ever to check with.” Footballer’s routines and dietary schedules are certainly more rigorously controlled than in days gone by but should we be placing all our trust in the club’s themselves? Given the stakes, I think it only correct that players be tested more regularly.

This is not because doping is currently a stain on the game but with the elite game getting quicker year on year and the financial rewards skyrocketing, football should drop the claims of innocence and create stronger controls to insulate itself from future risk.

Read more from Ciarán here!

Follow Ciaran on Twitter at @keep_score

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2 Comments on Off-Pitch Focus: Liverpool defender Mamadou Sakho’s suspension after failing a drugs test is cause for deep concern

  1. I think there has been a massive over reaction to this, yes it was a substance of WADA’s banned list but I don’t think taking a slimming supplement available over the counter can be compared to Jaap Stamm taking nandrolene and Adrian Mutu taking cocaine!

    • The comparison was less to do with the drug more the coverage and length of bans. My concern lies not with an existing doping problem or indeed Sakho’s supplement error but the casual approach. The effects of cocaine on performance are minimal so I think Mutu gets a hard rap but you’re right to draw a line between nandrolone and whatever was found in Sakho’s system. He wasn’t doping – Stam and Davids almost certainly were.

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