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The drug scandal that blackens the name of Juve's team of the Nineties

Club doctor sentenced to jail as doping controversy intensifies

Frank Dunne
Wednesday 01 December 2004 01:00 GMT

In 1994 Italy's most successful club, Juventus, had not won the league title for eight years. The club's proprietors, Giovanni and Umberto Agnelli, owners of the Fiat motoring empire, were extremely concerned. They dreamt of a new golden era, but knew they had to overhaul the club's senior management if it was to become reality.

In 1994 Italy's most successful club, Juventus, had not won the league title for eight years. The club's proprietors, Giovanni and Umberto Agnelli, owners of the Fiat motoring empire, were extremely concerned. They dreamt of a new golden era, but knew they had to overhaul the club's senior management if it was to become reality.

In making changes they were ruthless. In came the former Fiat executive Antonio Giraudo as managing director; Luciano Moggi, then with Roma, and an acknowledged master of the transfer market, was hired as sporting director; the club's former striker Roberto Bettega was made vice-president. The triumvirate promptly appointed Marcello Lippi, then with Napoli, as the club's new head coach. The revolution extended to a shake-up of backroom staff with Riccardo Agricola, a neuro-pathologist who has been part of the medical team since 1985, promoted to club doctor.

The changes worked spectacularly. There was also an influx of new playing talent, and inspired by the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Alessandro Del Piero, Juventus embarked on a period of success impressive even by their own high standards. The Old Lady, as the club is affectionately known, won Serie A titles in 1995, 1997 and 1998, and reached the Champions' League final in three successive years, winning it in 1996. They also won the European Super Cup, the Coppa Italia and two Italian Super Cups.

It was a remarkable era, but now the brilliance of that team and their dominance has been seriously questioned, and there are many in Italy who are asking whether it was all too good to be true. That's certainly what the Italian courts think. Last Friday in Turin's Palazzo di Giustizia, Judge Giuseppe Casalbore sentenced Agricola to 22 months in jail for supplying Juventus players with performance-enhancing drugs, including the banned blood-boosting hormone erythropoietin (EPO), between 1994 and 1998. Agricola was also barred from practising medicine for 22 months and fined €2,000 (£1,390).

Giraudo, who was also on trial, was cleared of all charges. A third defendant, Giovanni Rossano, a pharmacist accused of supplying drugs on bogus prescriptions, agreed a plea bargain with the court and had a five-month custodial sentence reduced to a €5,000 fine.

The trial had its origins in an interview given by Zdenek Zeman, then the Roma coach (he is now with Lecce), who told L'espresso magazine in 1998 that football needed to "come out of the pharmacy", and pointed the finger at Juventus players in particular. It prompted Raffaele Guariniello, a magistrate in Juve's home city of Turin, to launch an investigation. Some of the evidence uncovered was startling.

When investigators raided the club they found 281 different types of drug. Few, if any of them were banned by the International Olympic Committee and no EPO was found. But the sheer quantity of pharmaceuticals told the magistrates that something was amiss. As Gianmartino Benzi, medical adviser to Guariniello, put it, "the club was equipped like a small hospital".

By January 2002, Guariniello felt he had enough evidence to bring charges and club officials were put on trial for the alleged illegal use of drugs by its players. The turning point in that trial came in June this year when two independent experts appointed by the court presented their findings. By any standards these were extraordinary. Eugenio Muller, a pharmacologist, reported that the club had systematically supplied its players with prescription-only drugs, with no therapeutic justification but with the aim of boosting energy levels or speeding recovery after injury.

Among the drugs used were Voltaren, an anti-inflammatory and pain killer, which was used by 32 players. The drug is widely used in football to treat isolated injuries but Muller said that at Juventus the usage was not occasional but planned, continuous and substantial.

Samyr, a powerful anti-depressant, was taken by 23 players, even though "none of these players showed any signs of depression", according to Muller. Neoton, a drug used to protect the heart, was taken by 14 players.

If anything the testimony of leading haematologist Giuseppe d'Onofrio appeared even more sensational. He said that it was "practically certain" that midfielders Antonio Conte and Alessio Tacchinardi had taken EPO to overcome brief bouts of anaemia, and "very probable" that seven other players - Alessandro Birindelli, Alessandro Del Piero, Didier Deschamps, Manuel Dimas, Paolo Montero, Gianluca Pessotto and Moreno Torricelli - had taken EPO in small doses. The club's lawyers believe that the charges relating to EPO use were the weakest part of the prosecution case and will not hold up under the scrutiny in the Appeal Court. They contest the scientific basis of d'Onofrio's analysis and say that "practically certain" and "very probable" is not the same as beyond all reasonable doubt.

The high profile of the club guaranteed media interest in the trial from the outset and that interest sharpened considerably when stars like Zidane and Del Piero gave evidence last year. But there was a fair degree of cynicism about whether the trial would achieve anything. Many view the legal system as one of interminable trials and appeals which fizzle out after years and where no one pays, especially not the big guys. So the sentencing of an official at Italy's biggest club - even though the sentence, for a first offence, will be suspended - shocked the Italian football world in a way that none of its previous scandals had done. Giacomo Aiello, the former head of the anti-doping team at the IOC, described the verdict as "historic".

Louis van Gaal, manager of the Ajax team which lost to Juventus in the 1996 Champions' League final, said this week that if clubs convicted of doping did not have their prizes taken away doping would never be discouraged, but Juve are in no imminent danger of being stripped of any of their titles.

Agricola is set to challenge the sentence in the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, the Supreme Court. Such a process could take four to five years. The Italian Football Federation said that it had no plans to take any disciplinary action until the legal process had been exhausted. European football's governing body, Uefa, is also wary of taking immediate action.

And what of Juventus? The club still insists it has done nothing wrong and is confident that Agricola will win his appeal. Giraudo, remarkably, said he was "extremely happy" with the outcome. "Juventus has come out of this with its head held high, innocent," he added. "The sentencing of our doctor was a minor accident which will disappear on appeal. Fair play has been an important value in the history of Juventus."

As for those who felt the trial had stained the reputation of a great club, he had a succint riposte. Anyone who thought along those lines was, he said, "a village idiot".

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