Based on the evidence it doesn’t look like doping is as widespread in football as it is in baseball, cycling, or American football. However, that doesn’t mean doping doesn’t exist in football. If anything, you would think that the constant running and the brutal schedule would encourage drug usage. Either it’s just not part of the culture or the players are better about not getting caught.
For this list of biggest doping cases, I only considered performance enhancing drugs and not recreational drugs.
1. Diego Maradona, 1994 World Cup.
Overview: He was out of shape, overweight, and seemingly over-the-hill. Maradona, once one of the greatest players in the world, had become increasingly unreliable as a result of drug abuse, alcoholism, and overall indifference.
Suddenly, the 1994 World Cup started and Maradona shocked the world by showing up in fantastic shape. He scored in Argentina’s first match, a 4-0 demolition of Greece, and celebrated so vociferously and violently that it immediately spawned rumors of steroid abuse. After Argentina’s second match, a 2-1 victory against Nigeria in which Maradona had played well once again, the news came down that Maradona had tested positive for the banned substance, ephedrine. Maradona was thrown out of the World Cup, and a demoralized Argentina squad limped out in the Round of 16.
Result: Maradona was banned for 18 months, but the suspension was academic, as he never played international football again. On a personal note, the 1994 World Cup was the first time I really watched soccer. I was so excited to see Maradona play that it was all I could think about for days. After the drug test came back, though, and Maradona was thrown out, I was absolutely crushed.
2. Abel Xavier, Middlesbrough, English Premier League, 2005
Overview: It’s always an honor to be number 1. Then again, Xavier may not want his distinction of being the first Premiership player to test positive for performance enhancing drugs. Xavier was tested prior to a UEFA Cup match, and his drug test came up dirty for dianabol, a steroid known for building muscle mass.
Result: Xavier was banned for 18 months, which was later shortened to 12 months. He returned to Middlesbrough for the 2006-2007 season, and eventually moved to MLS to play for the L.A. Galaxy. He continues to maintain his innocence to this day.
3. Jaap Stam, Lazio, Serie A, 2001
Overview: Luckily for the EPL, Stam had been sold by Manchester United to Lazio, otherwise he might have been the pioneer that Xavier ultimately became. A few months after completing his move to Lazio for saying incendiary and stupid things in his autobiography about Sir Alex Ferguson, David Beckham, the Nevilles, and a score of others, Stam came up dirty for nandrolone, a steroid also known as Deca-Durabolin. Stam relied on the defense that Barry Bonds and others would eventually use, claiming that he had never “knowingly” used performance enhancing drugs.
Stam’s suspension came on the heels of a slew of high-profile doping cases in Serie A from the previous season as Lazio defender Fernando Couto and Juventus’s Dutch midfielder Edgar Davids were among those suspended after testing positive. Additionally, Stam’s fellow Dutch international, Barcelona’s Frank De Boer, was banned for a year in June of 2000 for nandrolone, but was reinstated a few months later.
Result: Stam’s suspension was 5 months, but was reduced to a mere month on appeal.
4. Rio Ferdinand, Manchester United, English Premier League, 2003
Overview: From a legal standpoint, most institutions consider a missed drug test to be tantamount to a failed drug test. From a logical standpoint, you probably wouldn’t miss a drug test unless you were guilty as hell. Sure, Ferdinand claimed he forgot about the test and offered an excuse about moving. Sure, he tried to rectify the situation by offering to take the test later in the day, and then taking, and passing, a test a couple of days later.
However, the whole point of a random test is to catch players off-guard so that they won’t have time to ingest anything that would allow them to alter the results in any way. As such, Ferdinand’s forthcoming attitude in the wake of his missed test actually raises more suspicion.
Result: The punishment was severe as the F.A. wanted to send a message to anyone else who was thinking about skipping out on a drug test. Ferdinand was banned for 8 months and fined £50,000. He missed the rest of Manchester United’s season, in which they won the F.A. Cup but were shockingly ousted by Porto in the Champions League and finished a distant third in the Premiership.
He also missed out on Euro 2004, a decision that so angered his teammates that they nearly boycotted an important Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey. Ferdinand returned the following season and, despite a few hiccups along the way, has rehabilitated his image and has established himself as one of the very best defenders in the world to the point where, in 2008, he nearly became England’s captain.
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