FA will start drug tests for EPO 'in near future'

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The Independent Football

The Football Association announced yesterday that it will introduce testing for erythropoietin (EPO), "in the near future", indicating a serious desire to address the threat of doping in the game. The extra cost could rise to £160,000 a year.

The FA has already been doing retrospective tests in secret for the designer steroid, THG, on stored urine samples. A failed THG test last year effectively ended the career of Britain's Olympic sprinter, Dwain Chambers. Testing for EPO, widely used in cycling but never conclusively linked to footballers in Britain, is the next major initiative.

The announcement on EPO testing came on the day that The Independent revealed the concerns of the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, about the "abnormally high" red blood cell counts in some footballers who had come to Arsenal from abroad. Wenger said that he believed some clubs injected players with drugs, claiming perhaps that they were vitamins.

A high red blood cell count in sportsmen is often regarded as a symptom of EPO, a banned substance. EPO increases the blood's capacity to carry oxygen and has most commonly been abused by cyclists and athletes dependent on large stamina reserves.

"We will be testing for EPO in the near future," an FA spokesman said, without giving any details of when such testing would start. Last season the FA conducted 1,324 drugs tests, though not a single sample was tested for EPO. The governing body will perform drugs 1,600 tests this season, with an undisclosed number likely to be for EPO. A gradual increase in EPO testing is expected.

The FA said that Wenger's comments were not the sole reason for announcing the test yesterday, but conceded that the view of coaches and other senior figures were considered. "The FA has always wanted to be leading the way in the fight against doping," a spokesman said. "If a particular issue comes to light as a cause of concern we would want to be up there among the first to address it."

The FA rejected suggestions that urine tests for EPO had not been introduced sooner because of the extra cost. Industry insiders disclosed yesterday that a "routine" drugs test, for "common" performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drugs, costs £320. Additional testing for EPO costs an extra £100 per sample. If all samples taken on behalf of the FA are tested for EPO, the FA's testing costs will rise from around £512,000 to £672,000 per year.

"The FA wants to be leading the game in the fight against doping and cost issues would not be the overriding factor," a spokesman said.

Neither Wenger nor Arsenal have given any details about the numbers, identities or nationalities of the players, who on arrival at Highbury, had elevated counts of red blood cells. Wenger mentioned the subject on Wednesday in Brussels at a conference about European integration, where he said: "We have had surprises with players we took on, testing their blood."

Arsenal would not confirm yesterday how many, if any, players Arsenal had signed despite initial abnormal blood results, nor how many trialists the club had rejected due to unusual findings in their blood. Wenger is not expected to disclose any such information, nor name any of the clubs he suspects might be involved in doping players.

It is assumed that Arsenal discovered high blood counts in players during medicals before signing players. The club declined to comment. It is against the FA's anti-doping rules for any club to perform blood analysis in search of doping evidence, or indeed any drugs tests, on its own players.