Italian football has always been rife with rumour and innuendo, just as the game has in this country. But never has a scandal of such magnitude been based on intrigue, media leaks and speculation as much as the one currently smashing its way through the Italian game.
Ten weeks after Zdenek Zeman, the coach of Roma, suggested that the muscles of certain players, including those of Juve's Alessandro del Piero and Chelsea's Gianluca Vialli, had grown beyond all reasonable expectation, Italy has been gripped by a doping scandal. Almost daily it produces fresh allegations but has so far come up with only one minor positive test for anabolic steroids and a whole lot of rumour and counter-rumour.
At the heart of the debate, not dissimilar to the one that has begun to take root here, is what constitutes doping and whether injections of multi-vitamins, amino acids and other legal substances represent performance- enhancing drug abuse or, as Glenn Hoddle believes, fitness-enhancing supplements that have been administered in Europe for years and which he himself used as a player and condones as a coach.
Some facts are indisputable, however, not least that the Rome laboratory where urine tests of Italian players have for years been routinely tested - or supposed to have been - has been seriously negligent. The laboratory, one of the International Olympic Committee's accredited testing sites, has admitted that it analysed only 10 per cent of the samples it received from Italian footballers. As a result, Mario Pescante, chairman of Italy's national Olympic committee (Coni), resigned and all but three of the laboratory's other directors were either fired or stepped down. This was followed yesterday by the resignation of the head of Coni's anti-doping panel, Ugo Longo, and the news that Pescante had been put under formal investigation.
"We have had big problems in recent years because we didn't have enough staff," Michele Maffei, the general secretary of the Italian sports medical federation, admitted. "We have to carry out between 3,000 and 4,000 tests a year and it simply isn't possible. We obviously need to find a new protocol for testing."
The Italian media is suspicious of such explanations and have hinted that the Rome lab and the Italian football federation are collaborating - perhaps in order to avoid a repetition of the early 1990s, when Diego Maradona and Claudio Caniggia were both banned for cocaine use.
"We know for a fact that many of the documents referring to testing at the Rome lab have been destroyed," said Roberto Beccantini, of La Stampa. "You have to ask yourself why. The problem is that no one can prove anything because there is no hard evidence." Two investigations, one in Turin, the other in Bologna (a third, by Coni, ended inconclusively) are running side-by-side and compiling as much information as possible, including interviews with high-profile players.
Sandro Donati, director of Coni, has already been quoted as telling the investigating magistrate in Turin that many Serie A teams have used performance-enhancing drugs in the past. More alarmingly, Donati also backed up the media's claim that the results of many tests have mysteriously disappeared and said the Rome lab consistently produced the lowest number of positive tests in Europe.
Donati told the Independent: "I'm not trying to stir things up but there are certain facts that cannot be ignored. For instance, last year the laboratory in Paris that deals with French football had four positive results for anabolic steroids out of just 350 tests. Yet we, again, found none."
Donati also stressed that only after the recent scandal blew up did Italian authorities admit that one player had tested positive. Cristiano Pavone, who plays for Lecce in Serie B, was recently reported to the country's anti-doping commission.
Pavone, who is awaiting his fate, has protested his innocence, saying he fell off his bicycle and needed urgent treatment. But Donati said: "Strange, isn't it, how this positive test was made public so quickly after the investigation. Our laboratory needs a complete overhaul. I believe the whole personnel there should be changed. Otherwise we may have to start sending samples abroad to be tested."
Within days of Donati's comments, the laboratory was temporarily shut down while Coni continues its investigation. As Donati suggested, tests will now be sent abroad and conducted at the IOC-accredited laboratories in Barcelona, Cologne and Milan.
Donati's concern over possible steroid use is matched by his anxiety over legal substances like Creatine, the so-called wonder drug that is available over the counter throughout Europe and is taken by scores of athletes across a spectrum of sports. West Ham's Ian Wright swears by it and Chelsea's Roberto di Matteo has admitted using it, although only once, but Tottenham's John Scales swears about it, blaming his run of injuries on having used it in the past. Professional rugby players and Formula One drivers are also understood to be regular Creatine users.
Donati rejects the accusation that Italian authorities are wasting a considerable amount of money on an investigation into perfectly legal substances. "The attitude of teams must change," he said. "They must understand that whatever you are given, legal or not, it can be dangerous if taken in excess."
The Juventus team doctor disagrees fundamentally. Riccardo Agricola insists that there is a world of difference between banned drugs and naturally occurring substances such as Creatine. "The confusion between the two leads to ignorance," Agricola said. He doubts whether there is any regular drug-taking going on in Italy outside the legal limits. "If the doping phenomenon exists, I think it is very limited because steroids and anabolic substances would be counter-productive."
Juventus and Del Piero clearly agree with their team doctor since they are taking legal action against Zeman, while the Italian players' union had threatened to stage a six-month strike if media allegations of widespread drug abuse persist - a threat it withdrew yesterday, while at the same time calling for random drug tests to protect their health.
Juventus fans are fuming, too. During a recent game against Piacenza, they rounded on the press box to express their outrage, hurling bolts and chairs at journalists.
Zeman insists that his comments were made for the good of the game. "I have unearthed a problem and I hope others will accept that it is there," the Roma coach said. "I have been surprised by the action of the players' union. Instead of thanking me for raising a question which affects the health of their members, they have lined up against me."
The Roma coach does, however, have his supporters. Donati believes that without Zeman's comments, the lengths to which Italian footballers will go to enhance their performance might never have come to light.
Donati cites the recent startling revelations at Parma as a prime example. A leaked police report showed that 21 of 25 Parma players had an unusually high red blood cell count in tests carried out during pre- season training. Such high levels cansometimes be the result of usingEPO, a red blood cell booster that increases oxygen in the bloodstream and is associated with endurance sports, particularly cycling. Use of EPO, which thickens the blood and can cause heart attacks, was responsible for a spate of suspensions at this summer's Tour de France.
Parma were furious about the leaks but their efforts at damage limitation did not stop one of their former players, Daniel Bravo, from speaking out. Now at Marseilles, Bravo was a Parma player for 18 months and said he would sue the club if he found he was given EPO.
"We were systematically given vitamin injections before games," Bravo said. "I didn't approve but if you protested, you went against club rules. The problem with injections is that the doctor involved can put whatever he likes into them."
Italian sports doctors believe the time has come to introduce random blood testing, hitherto fiercely resisted in international football. At present, two players from each Serie A and Serie B game are tested through urine but doctors, like Donati, believe the best way to tackle the current crisis is to take a double test of both urine and blood samples in order to cover all possible stimulants absorbed. Indeed, talks between the Italian FA and Coni have already begun.
Meanwhile, the scandal shows no sign of abating. Its significance should not be underestimated. Nor should its potential impact on the game here. For, even if the Italian investigations throw up nothing more than widespread misuse of legal stimulants, serious doubt will be cast on the whole question of boosting fitness levels artificially. A practice which the England coach and a number of his supporters at club level have resolutely defended - until now.
THE STORY SO FAR
25 July: Roma's coach, Zdenek Zeman, alleges, in an Italian magazine interview, that certain players have achieved remarkable increase in muscle bulk, and names Alessandro del Piero and Gianluca Vialli. Both have vehemently denied drug abuse.
27 July: Italian national Olympic committee (Coni) opens an investigation into alleged drug abuse.
7 August: Coni calls on Zeman to give evidence. Vialli describes him on the same day as being a "football terrorist." Bologna's coach supports Zeman.
9 August: Raffaele Guariniello, the Turin public prosecutor, begins a separate investigation.
10 August: The Bologna prosecutor, Giovanni Spinosa, opens a third inquiry after a chemist in the city admits to supplying stimulants to teams.
14 August: Del Piero becomes the first in a string of big names to be questioned. Others include Vialli, Dino Baggio and Didier Deschamps.
25 August: The Coni investigation closes, concluding there is no doping in football. The other inquiries carry on.
1 September: Coni's anti-doping laboratory comes under investigation following allegations of negligence and cover-ups.
29 September: The head of Coni, Mario Pescante, resigns. "I have done nothing wrong," he says. "I've stepped down to try to bring calm to an area that has been poisoned by an issue blown out of all proportion."
1 October: Christiano Pavone,of Lecce, is the first player to be named officially as having failed a drugs test.
12 October: Italian players withdraw strike threat and head of Coni anti- doping panel, Ugo Longo, resigns.
DRUGS AT THE CENTRE OF DEBATE
A legal substance that provides added stamina, giving it a seductive attraction for many athletes. A naturally produced food supplement, it has been taken by professional sportsmen in Europe and the United States for many years. It helps muscles work harder for longer and improves recovery time. Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, as well as Ian Wright, admit to having used it, but doctors warn that too much of it can be dangerous. Fears were raised when three American wrestlers died after taking Creatine and evidence suggests it can cause kidney and liver damage.
Medical textbooks say the normal percentage of red blood cells in a healthy adult is between 42 and 45. Cyclists have regularly been thrown out of races, including the Tour de France, for having a 51 per cent count or higher. A red blood cell boosting agent, it is believed to cause cardiac arrest and thrombosis if used to excess. In the last decade, the deaths of 19 Dutch cyclists have been linked to the substance, which increases oxygen levels. There is no test for it in common use but it is banned by the International Olympic Committee.Reuse content