Wenger suspects imports of doping

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, has implied that some of his foreign players may have used illegal, performance-enhancing drugs prior to their arrival at Highbury, describing symptoms consistent with the use of erythropoietin (EPO).

While maintaining that drug abuse was not "a big problem" within football, he also voiced the suspicion that some clubs injected players with drugs without their knowledge.

The Arsenal manager's remarks are certain not only to spark speculation about which specific players he was referring to but also to reignite the debate about the seriousness - or the lack of it - surrounding drug-testing in football.

Wenger is the first high-profile coach in world football to reveal so explicitly his suspicions about systematic doping. He is also the first in Britain to voice suspicions about his own players' pasts.

"We have had some players come to us at Arsenal from other clubs abroad and their red blood cell count has been abnormally high," he said. "That kind of thing makes you wonder."

Arsenal routinely monitor all aspects of their players' health and fitness, including in-house blood tests. Wenger did not name any individuals nor say when the high counts occurred.

A high red blood cell count is often regarded as a symptom of the use of EPO, a banned drug that increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood. The 1998 Tour de France was marred by EPO abuse among participants, but its use is widely accepted to have spread beyond cycling into numeroussports where stamina levels are a key factor in performance.

A high count might also be caused by blood doping, a banned practice whereby an athlete is injected with extra blood (either their own, pre-stored, or someone else's) to increase the amount of oxygen in their system.

Wenger's comments came late on Wednesday evening at a debate in Brussels on the contribution of football to the integration of Europe. At the close of the debate, he was asked if he thought drugs were a problem in football.

"Drugs are a problem in all high-level sports," he replied. "I wouldn't say they were a big problem in football, but I wouldn't say that it does not exist."

Wenger then deliberately chose to expand on his theme. "There are clubs who dope their players without the players knowing," he said. He used a phrase in French, "a l'insu de leur plein gré", which means "without their full consent". The phrase was made famous by the French cyclist Richard Virenque, who admitted on the witness stand in a trial in France in 1999 that he had taken drugs.

Wenger went on: "The club might say that they were being injected with vitamins and the player would not necessarily know that it was something different. We have had some players come to us at Arsenal from other clubs abroad and their "taux d'hématocrite" [red blood cell count] has been abnormally high. That kind of thing makes you wonder."

No footballer in Britain has ever tested positive for EPO: but that is not surprising. EPO tests are never routinely done on footballers' samples. "I'd guarantee that very few [footballers'] tests, if any, would have anything to do with EPO," Michele Verroken, the former Director of Ethics and Drug-Free Sport at UK Sport, said yesterday. UK Sport is the body which conducts drugs tests in Britain on behalf of the Football Association.

"The technology where you can test for EPO in urine is very sophisticated and the FA would probably have to pay a premium for it," Verroken added.

A spokesman for UK Sport confirmed that the extra cost to the FA of testing for EPO - as opposed to just testing for more "common" performance-enhancing or recreational drugs - was "significant."

In fact, of the 1,324 drugs test samples collected by UK Sport for the FA in the year between 1 April 2003 and 31 March this year, not a single one was tested for EPO. Of those 1,324 tests, seven had "adverse" outcomes.

One player tested positive for testosterone but was found to have no case to answer. Another player, Rio Ferdinand, failed to comply with the testing regulations. He was subsequently banned for eight months, returning to action last month for Manchester United and this week for England.

Three players tested positive for marijuana. Two tested positive for stimulants, with one of them found to have benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, in his sample. He was suspended for six months. It is normal procedure for any player testing positive to have their identity kept confidential.

Failed drugs tests as a result of performance-enhancing substances have been most frequent in Italy, although findings for the steroid nandrolone have been more common than those involving EPO, for which tests are rarely conducted.