Ewan MacKenna: Murky questions surround Spanish football's golden era – and people might not like the answers
It was a sketch that first appeared in 2012, although the trouble that followed means it can be hard to find a copy these days.
Appearing on French TV show Les Guignols, which translates as The Puppets and is their version of Spitting Image, it involved a life-size Rafael Nadal driving into a petrol station. Going inside, he buys a bottle of water, returns to the courtyard to urinate in the gas tank of his Range Rover, and takes off at jet pace. By the finale, he is pulled over for speeding.
To rub salt in what is the self-inflicted wound of their neighbours due to the standard and scale of their anti-doping work, a motto popped up in the midst of it all saying, “Spanish athletes. They don’t win by chance.”
It was surrounded by the logos of some of their federations with tennis naturally there due to the Nadal likeness, as was cycling so soon after Alberto Contador’s ban.
Spain’s contradictory reaction said a lot as they couldn’t get their story straight. Their tennis association, for instance, decided to go down the legal route with Canal Plus, reminding us of the adage that you call a lawyer when you feel guilt. But Minister for Sport Jose Ignacio Wert accepted the nation needed to gain credibility.
“We have a problem with doping and that’s why we have every intention of making sure Spain’s anti-doping law conforms with WADA’s anti-doping code.”
All these years on and ask yourself, did they gain any credibility?
Of course, there was another notable logo that flashed up during the skit and, while it ought to have been taken most seriously given the stature and standing and success, it bizarrely escaped out from under so many microscopes. It was that of the Royal Spanish Football Federation.
Many have trouble getting their heads around that, but not for the reason that there’s so much to get their heads around. It’s a great shame but ahead of the Champions League final, do you take the blue pill so the story ends, you wake up in your bed, and believe whatever you want to? Or do you take the red pill, stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes?
* * *
“One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree.
‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.
‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.’”
It was in March of 2004 when Jesus Manzano, a middle-of-the-peloton cyclist with Kelme, came forward about a systematic doping programme in his team. Coincidence or not, since the interview he gave, in soccer his country has won two European Championships, a World Cup, eight Europa League titles, while Real Madrid on Saturday could add another Champions League to the seven others in that same period. It’s been unprecedented even for a major powerhouse of the game.
The problem that rankles though is what took place alongside all those glorious victories. And remember that baseless accusations differ greatly from queries based on facts and clear reality. If Spanish soccer wants to make the questions go away, all it has to do is provide some answers. That should be in its interest for, when there’s nothing to hide, pulling back the cloak comes easy.
After Manzano’s claims, it somehow took the Spanish police two years to launch an investigation into doctor Eufemiano Fuentes and when they finally did it became the infamous Operacion Puerto. During it, Manzano said, “I saw well-known footballers, but I cannot say how many”.
Fuentes confirmed as much and others would back up the suggestions with both Jorg Jaksche and Tyler Hamilton admitting on different occasions that, when blood doping with Fuentes, they saw athletes from other disciplines come and go. So serious was it, the cellmate of Fuentes, when in custody, said he told him if the story came out, Spain would likely have to give back the World Cup.
Yet the footballing element, or any other element outside of cycling, has never even been delved into and that’s because of either incompetence or corruption at each stage by Spanish authorities. Indeed when Fuentes offered to name all of his clients at trial, the judge stopped him, saying it violated doctor-patient confidentiality.
At one stage, the stored Fuentes blood bags were even ordered to be destroyed. That was reversed and they were later released to Wada in order to verify if any DNA matched that of athletes in ongoing cases although, with the statute of limitations expired, naming other athletes via their DNA is beyond the Wada remit.
Basically throwing up road blocks at every turn means we’ll never know the identity of these cheats. Imagine had this been Russia or China muddying the waters and how we’d view them and their teams for doing the same?
As an example, consider how Spain tried to protect it’s best cyclists in the case. There was Alberto Contador who – despite his name appearing in training documents around Fuentes, despite being the only member of his team with the initials AC which appeared in the doping ledger, despite refusing to give DNA that would clear him – received a letter from the secretary of the Spanish court proclaiming no wrongdoing. There was Alejandro Valverde too who – despite his name being in documents relating to blood plasma – saw no action taken against him in Spain and it took a change in jurisdiction when he passed into Italy for their authorities to take a DNA sample and prove he used Fuentes.
But while cycling finally had those involved named and shamed, soccer didn’t. Today, all we can say for certain is that Real Sociedad were definitely one club involved after their president Inaki Badiola admitted they paid €300,000 for Fuentes’ services to dope players between 2001 and 2007.
“For six years, La Real paid for medicines and products in illegal money that at the time were catalogued as doping products,” he noted.
“And for this reason, were obtained on the black market.”
But it was like the runner towards the back of the pack being done for drugs, while those at the front are just accepted as being better.
“There has been a selective filtering,” a frustrated Fuentes has said. “It is what has me outraged.”
Soccer is a sport that has been hard to crack in this sphere as more than any other, it’s too big to fail. Journalists who cover solely it are often wrongly criticised for not doing more when, given the power and lack of need for promotion, to ask about drugs can be to risk their livelihood. However in the case of Spain, via a roundabout sequence of events, the smoking gun was handed straight to those who could do something about it and they just wiped off the prints. At that point it’s hard not to look at the political and royal ties as well as economic power of the biggest clubs in Spain.
Still, there are some nonsense opinions that apologists make for soccer as if it should be any different to other sports, when the reasons for doping there make more sense given the rewards and lack of risks. Besides, the sport has always been at it, since before most even knew what doping was.
Ferenc Puskas suspected Germany juiced their way to the 1954 World Cup win and when Hungarian officials entered the opposition dressing room after the final they found syringes with what was suspected to be Pervitin, the powerful stimulant administered to German troops during World War II; the late Inter player Ferruccio Mazzola mentioned in his life story how Helenio Herrera doped their European dominating team in the 1960s and how if they spat out pills, he’d put them in their coffee, adding, “I believe amphetamines”; Ajax too received pills from a doctor the following decade with Barry Hulshoff saying they called them chocolate sprinkles and that “you felt very strong and never were out of oxygen”; Franz Beckenbauer said in 1977 the secret to his fitness was re-injecting his own blood and Harald Schumacher said some of his team were world champions in “strengthening chemistry” with one Bayern player known as “the walking pharmacy”; Gary Neville’s autobiography talks of “queues out the door” before England played Argentina in 1998 to take unknown injections that gave energy boosts; Jean-Pierre Paclet, who worked as a French under-21 doctor, claimed his nation’s World Cup-winning team that year also had suspect blood results when EPO was at its zenith.
Which brings us into this century of Spanish successes. In 2002 Dr Michel D’Hooge, Chairman of FIFA’s Medical Commission, said “high-profile stars” across Europe were taking EPO, growth hormones, and steroids, and doctors who’d worked with disgraced cyclists were “suddenly appearing in football clubs”.
In fact, when German publication Der Spiegal looked at doping in football in 2015 they found one positive for amphetamines which was confirmed as being the day after 2016 European Championship qualifiers and while UEFA refused to say it was from these games, they said the player had an exemption due to ADHS.
Another of those involved took the banned dexamethasone with no consequences as UEFA said that the player “bore no fault” because the substance was from an injection “earlier in the season”. Two had taken the now famous salbutamol, one took amphetamines, one ecstasy. On top of that Fifa said there were 78 cases but Wada contradicted them saying there were 149 positives.
Be it cynical or sensible, looking in from the outside, it reminds of so many other sporting bodies. And Fifa are hardly any different when it comes to suiting themselves around the morality of right and wrong with Michel Platini lately admitting World Cup draws were rigged, without so much as a hint of shame. Why would doping be any different? And, while not conclusive proof, it leaves so much suspicion back in Spain due to their own acts, actions and decisions.
Barcelona had US Postal doctor Luis Garcia Del Moral working with them as the club admitted he may have been there on an “ad-hoc basis”. Fuentes, meanwhile, said Real Madrid actually owe him money for his work, with the club denying it and saying anything due was for travel expenses to testify in a separate case against Le Monde newspaper. That was because, in 2008, their journalist Stephane Mandard said the doctor showed him “medical records of players for Real Betis, Sevilla, Valencia, Real Madrid and Barcelona, with detailed doping plans for an entire season”. He also said he wasn’t allowed take the documents with him and was sued by Barcelona and Real Madrid for his claims.
It’s noteworthy that he was shown those documents in an office in Las Palmas yet, after that story broke, the Spanish authorities never went there, instead raiding a Madrid office belonging to Fuentes.
It goes on… In 2012 journalist Graham Hunter with his huge insight into Spanish football popped up on Off The Ball and talked confidently about how Xavi was suffering from a chronic condition and was “taking growth hormones that got him through this last year”. When pressed, he again stated the claim and that if HGH was wrong, they are in trouble as it was done very publicly and it was “an injection Barcelona have been using to deal with muscle strains and fatigue over the last couple of years”. Quickly after, that interview Hunter reneged for unknown reasons. Granted we already know Barcelona used HGH on a teenage Lionel Messi due to concerns over his size.
And on… The late French signer Johnny Hallyday in an interview said Zinedine Zidane recommended a Swiss clinic for “blood oxidation treatment” as he did it “one or two times a year”.
“It is a subject that I prefer to ignore,” noted former Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque when once asked about all of this. He’s hardly alone and ahead of the weekend game it’s worth adding that Jurgen Klopp too has stressed it’s not an issue in soccer. But on a dark night you shine the torch directly in front and take one step at time, and Spain’s own past and present mean they are that first step.
Recently talking to a strength and conditioning expert they couldn’t believe the shape Cristiano Ronaldo was in. That’s not to imply wrongdoing, but knowing their field they said a body builder would do well to achieve that look and that is their primary goal when, in the Portuguese’s case, it’s not really a goal at all because of little linkage between such a body and football benefits.
But maybe he is just a freak.
And maybe Barcelona are just exceptional in maintaining their high-pressing game.
And maybe Les Guignols was out of order.
And maybe Jose Ignacio Wert didn’t understand what was happening in his midst.
And maybe Eufemiano Fuentes lied about it all bar cycling.
And maybe Jesus Manzano, Jorg Jaksche and Tyler Hamilton all mistook what they saw.
And maybe Real Sociedad were the only bad egg.
And maybe Luis Garcia Del Moral had changed his morals after his US Postal experience.
And maybe Stephane Mandard risked his credibility and career in making up a story.
And maybe Graham Hunter’s perfect clarity was just a moment of crazy.
And maybe lifestyle and age had got the better of Johnny Hallyday.
And maybe Spanish authorities didn’t bother because they knew better.
And maybe Spain and their soccer clubs are just better than everyone else.
Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding.
But what if it’s not?