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What could go wrong during the usual drug tests in football?

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Marca reported on Thursday that the UEFA drug testing team paid another visit to the Real Madrid training complex this week; their second visit of the season.  Colloquially known in the Spanish game as "Los Vampiros - The Vampires", the anti-doping unit descended once again on Real, as is their right, to conduct tests on selected players drawn at random from those present in order to see if any illegal substances were being taken by the Madrid players.

This is normal practice nowadays, not only in football but in other sports, and testing is conducted on a regular basis.  Although deliberate taking of illegal substances is not the normal in football, mistakes can easily be made.  The most frequent breaches of the anti-doping regulations occur when players take over-the-counter cold remedies containing banned substances which can be present in certain medications, or when health and fitness supplements are used such as Creatine.  Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found in muscle tissue and additional supplementation of this is thought to improve certain explosive activities such as a player's ability to perform the repeated sprints which are required as part of the game.  Although taking Creatine as a supplement is not illegal, it is often the other components used by the manufacturers to ‘bind' the product that can lead to a player failing a drugs test; and this used to be a common problem when the anti-doping programme first started.  Players would take perfectly legal substances such as Creatine, yet were failing drug tests due to the additional agents added by the manufactures as binding agents.

The problem with supplements still exists today.  As the world has got smaller we are finding that players from all over the globe are using products which are not necessarily made in countries where manufacturing regulations may not be quite so strict and thus the same supplement can contain varied and often illegal additives depending on where the product was made.  The same thing applies to many over-the-counter medications which if bought in one country are perfectly legal but will lead to a test failure if purchased elsewhere.  This can (and does) happen when playing away in some of the more remote venues, for example in the earlier stages of the European competitions, pre-season tours, and / or exhibition matches in countries where medications are perhaps easier to purchase over the counter than they are at home.

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The problem of recreational drug use is another matter entirely, though.  Society in general does not tolerate the use of recreational substances and rightly so.  Sport also shows little sympathy for those participants found guilty of recreational drug misuse and clubs are now taking a zero-tolerance approach to this.  The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) is responsible for the prevention of misuse of drugs in sport and publishes regular updates in addition to providing all clubs and organisations with an extensive checklist of legal and illegal substances.  Breaches of WADA regulations, which is what the drug testing teams are looking for, can have serious repercussions for everyone involved.  Such repercussions can also extend to whoever supplied a substance which is illegal, and in the past has included several doctors, physiotherapists and fitness coaches who have given their players illegal substances in the mistaken belief that these products were allowed.  In the eyes of WADA, ignorance is not a defence.

In this respect, the main errors have tended to be either through fitness coaches recommending that players take certain supplements without first checking the composition, or club doctors / physiotherapists giving over-the-counter cold and flu remedies which may contain banned substances.  In reality, the testers are not looking to catch players out who have inadvertently taken the wrong cold remedy; they are after the players who take the serious stimulants like EPO (erythropoieten), human growth hormone (HGH), or anabolic steroids to build muscle mass.   WADA's website provides extensive information for sportspeople looking to see if what they are taking is legal and also has the facility to contact them directly for advice and clarification.  As a result of this, WADA will argue that there is no excuse for ingesting something illegal since the legality of the substance in question can easily be checked.

UEFA drug testing teams have the power to enter the club training complex at will and randomly test players at any time night or day.  The usual scenario at the training complex is that the testers will arrive unannounced, get all the players together, and draw names at random from a list of those present provided by the coaching staff.  Once the players have been selected, those players are not allowed out of sight of the testers until they have provided blood and urine samples, which are then taken for laboratory analysis.  Any player refusing to provide a sample will be subject to a ban for failing to comply with WADA regulations, as England's Rio Ferdinand famously did a few years ago.

A slightly different scenario applies in game situations.  Usually a UEFA or national FA official will approach the technical area whilst the game is in progress and inform the bench that certain players have been selected for testing immediately post-match.  At the end of the game, the players selected will be escorted from the field and must go directly to the testing room without going via their own dressing room, and will not be allowed to leave before samples have been provided.  The testing teams will frequently have a long wait for urine samples if players are dehydrated; and with the advent of blood-doping, which involves boosting the number of red blood cells in order to enhance performance, the additional taking of blood samples can make for a long evening!

Two samples are taken, and this is to ensure that the correct samples have been taken from the right player, and players must sign to confirm that the samples taken are actually from them.  This is the frequently-reported scenario of waiting until a player's ‘B sample' has been tested before confirming that a player has tested positive for an illegal substance.  It is often thought that the B sample will test differently, but in reality the B sample is taken in the same test and so therefore will merely confirm the test findings.  If a player tests positive for an illegal substance then all the B sample will do is confirm this as opposed to providing an alternative.

Players therefore need to be aware of what supplements are allowed and although the medical staff has a responsibility to make them aware of the common pitfalls via education, ultimately the responsibility is on the individual to ensure that everything they take is legal.  That way there is no need to fear the arrival of "Los Vampiros".  The taking of illegal substances in football is rare thanks to the emphasis on player education but mistakes can still be made.  However, the focus on random testing has gone a long way towards eradicating such mistakes.