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Performance enhancing drugs in football: Does it matter?

Picture Credit: The Guardian I need to be clear that this article is not whistleblowing. I have no idea if performance-enhancing drugs ...

Picture Credit: The Guardian
I need to be clear that this article is not whistleblowing. I have no idea if performance-enhancing drugs are used in football. I am just bored and want you to question what you might think about the use of performance-enhancing (PE) drugs, especially as we have now been without our beloved game. For the purpose of this article, I’m referring to banned substances as PE drugs. The focus is if it could be used at the elite level, referring to champions league clubs in Europe’s major leagues. Athletes can suffer huge punishments if found guilty of using PE drugs, the main two reasons are: an athlete can gain an unfair advantage and the use of drugs can pose health risks to the athlete.  

I wonder if governing bodies would offer leeway on the latter if the first wasn’t compromised?

Types of Performance enhancing drugs

The focus of this article will be on the use of banned substances which are thought to either gain an athlete an unfair advantage and/or pose a health risk to the athlete. IF these were used in football it probably wouldn’t be in the form of a steroid to boost muscle growth but in the form of a recovery drug allowing players to recover faster. I think this is the case due to the huge amount of games played in a calendar year. With an international tournament in the summer, players can rack up close to 70 games. 

Essentially training is damaging and recovering. Running 10km in a game is damaging followed by a period of recovery. If there was a way to speed up recovery so instead of 2 days off players only needed 1 or didn’t even need 1. That would allow for more time training and would mean they could play more games.  Recovery strategies, supplements, and products are widely available to everyone. Such as stretching, protein shakes, and foam rollers. Chelsea used ice baths as a recovery tool in pre-season when doing double sessions so players would be okay to train later on the same day. 

Physical performance output 

Playertek used their GPS software to calculate the difference in physical output from amateurs and professionals. It is important to note that these amateurs are still playing at a decent level and their physical output is significantly lower than professionals. On average professionals are 20% faster. In terms of distance run professionals cover 10.47km on average with some variance on positions compared to an average of 7.8km, 34% less for amateurs. This table taken from their website shows the differences between positions.

Top speed (mps)
Distance run (km)

% Difference
% Difference

Impact of genetics 

Genetics can explain some tremendous athletic achievements. Without getting too technical our muscles are made up of 2 types. Slow and Fast-twitch. If someone has a larger proportion of fast-twitch fibers they should be able to sprint faster than someone with less. Fast-twitch can also grow bigger and quicker than slow-twitch hence why Adama Traore and Michael Antonio are so explosive. Erling Haaland showed his explosive muscles designed for sprinting and jumping breaking the world record for standing long jump for 5-year-olds. He also ran 60m in 6.64 seconds averaging out to 10.1mps against PSG. 

If you averaged out Bolt’s 100m 9.58 record sprint it is 10.44mps. Top speeds of footballers include Mbappe with 10.56mps, Ronaldo with 10.72mps and Robben with 10.28mps. But if you take Bolt’s top speed it is 12.1mps. 

So bear in mind that some footballers are clocking up top speeds close to Olympic level sprinters while also covering over 10km in a game. It is also worth keeping an eye on any footballers who post their running data during the lockdown. Barkley clocked a 5k run at 16mins and Josh Brownhill of Burnley did a 20k in 1:16mins… on a running track.  The record for each is 12.37 and 56.26. So footballers aren’t far off sprinters and long-distance runners. And they do this twice a week for 9 months. 

Why would they use PE drugs? 


Now we stand on the brink of a TV event where all premier league football could be watched with 2-3 games each week for every team. Does that pose a health risk to the players? Does that favour clubs with larger squads and more depth? 

Or would you rather the season was finished now as there isn’t enough time for all the games to be played prioritizing fairness and player safety? Maybe not, but would you have a problem if clubs were allowed to use PE drugs to speed up recovery so that football could return in the form of a massive TV event? 

The 20 premier league clubs received $3Billion for 2018/19 with a new cycle kicking in adding another $220million on top of foreign broadcasters adding a further $1.33Billion. Essentially now football is just a billboard for companies to advertise and sponsor so they can get in on the profits.

In conjunction with the growing influence of foreign markets this isn’t going to stop anytime soon. The impact has already been already felt when after the pre-season match in Korea fans demanded their money back as Ronaldo didn’t play (which also happened at the end of the previous season when Allegri rested him against Genoa). In addition, Arsenal chose not to back Ozil who spoke out for Muslims being mistreated in China as it would impact on the Chinese market and thus hinder their potential money-making ventures in China. 

If there’s a way to make footballers faster and stronger thus making the spectacle greater would it not be in the interest of the people making money to try it?  Even for us fans who see it as entertainment would it not make for more entertaining matches if all the players at the elite level were almost superhuman? 

Other sports have shown it’s possible to use PE drugs safely in a controlled manner so it wouldn’t pose a large health risk. In addition, if all elite clubs were doing the same thing it wouldn’t be unfair either.  

The pressure to perform comes from the capitalist monster that is elite-level football.

We know that less than 1% of players who have been registered with clubs make a professional debut and 75% of those who make it aren’t in the game anymore by 21. Not to mention those whose careers are cut short by injury and they’re spat out by their club. We also know of the ruthless nature of clubs at the top when it comes to buying and selling players and the ever-growing demands from boards and supporters. 

Let me put this back to you if you were a young player 17-21 years old with a chance of being a professional footballer for a big club. One day a team doctor comes up to you, hands you some pills and says to take 1 a day after training with your food and it will improve your performance. They even tell you that all the first team uses it. You also know that other players at your age are taking them when you are all competing to get offered a professional contract. Would you say no? You don’t know they’re a banned substance, they could be vitamins.

Reports of drug use in football 

We know there are huge physical demands on footballers especially. A study in 2005 found that the use of recreational drugs such as cocaine and marijuana was widespread among footballers. Considering the use of recreational drugs has risen it is difficult to imagine it hasn’t risen among footballers. Interestingly, Professor Ivan Waddington who conducted the study confirmed that the tests for recreational drugs were simple and reliable, but these findings didn’t correlate with positive tests. 
A newspaper report in July 2019 found that 11 players were allowed to play despite testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. A probe revealed 16 tests showed players had taken PE drugs; 2 from 2016-17, 6 from 2017-18 and 8 from 2018-19 but the FA allowed them to play. Stats were taken from the UK anti-doping authority (UKAD). Some of the players were cleared to play thanks to therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs).  In the 2010 World Cup 25 players were cleared for using banned medicines. 

How to get away with using PE drugs

Professor Ivan Waddington mentions how the system of Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) is deeply flawed as a team doctor could write one if a player tested positive. The report in 2019 found 5 players who tested positive were given TUEs. The UKAD said they approve TUEs after an independent panel of 3 doctors has reviewed it. TUEs also get used in other sports such as cycling. Bradley Wiggins was cleared of using a performance-enhancing substance as a TUE as he suffers from asthma…. Asthma. It has since been revealed that it is common for elite cyclists to be asthmatic. Chris Froome also requires asthma medication. Cycling has a bad reputation for PE drugs and in 2004, 40% of the British cycling team had asthma compared to 8% of the overall population. 

Professor Ross Tucker joked about 7 tips to avoid being caught and punished. 

  1. Never take a test you won’t pass which can be done in athletics you can be pretending you didn’t hear the knock at your door from the anti-doping authorities who want to test you. 
  2. Have money as it allows you to cheat more efficiently and pay expensive lawyers if you’re caught.
  3. Have friends in high places as if you’re not connected you’re easy to sacrifice, it is also easier to control the narrative especially in the media. 
  4. Own the narrative you’ve created as it is more suspicious when people suddenly become world beaters without explanation. 
  5. Have asthma or be vulnerable to infections and have compliant doctors around you. 
  6. Attack the accuser with aggression as it is unlikely they’ll have enough money to fight you. 
  7. Make sure you’re British and English speaking and not Kenyan, Russian, German, Chinese, Turkish, Spanish or Italian. Thus, able to control the narrative form the media relying on the general cultural perception that the British don’t cheat but others do.  
Not all of these can be applied to football but common themes around being wealthy, powerful, British and English speaking with friends in high places can directly transfer across.  Now if you want to do some digging feel free to look up powerful people in football and see how many of them tick those boxes. 


Imagine the football system as a Jenga tower. The players make up the bottom, above them is the spectacle of the game, above them, is anyone who makes money from the spectacle such as gambling companies and above them is the people who regulate and control the money such as governing bodies and CEO’s. 4 blocks stacked on top of each other. If a player or a group of players were found guilty of using PE drugs that would cause the whole tower to collapse.
Therefore, it is in the interest of those at the top to ensure no-one gets caught for using PE drugs. It could also be argued that it would be in their interest to make them use PE drugs to increase the quality of the spectacle to increase profits. It is conceivable that an entire sport would have to go through a period of rectifying their image if everyone at the elite level was, in fact, using PE drugs. Much like athletics and cycling have had to do. 

So, therefore, you must ask yourself where you stand on the issue of football players at the elite level using PE drugs. 

For a sport that requires a huge aerobic physical output the lack of positive tests should be a matter of suspicion but shouldn’t be a concern to fans.  As I have shown it is possible to use PE drugs and it would be in the interest of the many if anyone who was using PE drugs didn’t get caught or punished. Therefore, you would be naïve to think that there are no PE drugs used in football. But equally you shouldn’t worry or become angered at the prospect of banned substances being used because it leads to a better entertainment product which we pay for. It is also normal in times like these to questions your moral standpoint on issues such as PE drugs as we see what life is like without our beloved game. 


Written by - Ben Bell
Twitter - @benbell98

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