It is Unfair That Footballers Are Punished More Severely For Taking Recreational Drugs

In starting this debate I would like to make it very clear that I do not condone the taking of illegal drugs. The aim of this editorial is to show how the system that punishes drug users in football is flawed, and unfairly punishes those who abuse recreational substances such as cocaine.

First of all, compare the differences in retribution between the below sets of cases. In 2004, former Juventus midfielder Jonathan Bachini was suspended for nine months for cocaine usage, and he was then banned for life in 2006 when he tested positive again. Also in 2004, Adrian Mutu received a seven month sentence for failing a drugs test for cocaine (let’s ignore all the drama with Chelsea). Ex-Italy Under-21 goalkeeper Angelo Pagotto was disciplined for two years in 2000, and then eight years in 2007, for taking cocaine. Ex-Sampdoria favourite Francesco Flachi was sent to the sidelines for two years after trace amounts of cocaine were found in his system in 2007. He will likely be banned for life after it was revealed earlier this week he had failed another check.

Meanwhile, during the last decade, the following sets of players served the following punishments after being found guilty of using the banned performance enhancing anabolic steroid nandrolone. Fernando Couto – four months, Jaap Stam – four months, Edgar Davids – four months, Josep Guardiola – four months (he was recently cleared of wrongdoing), Manuele Blasi – five months.

Notice the difference? Now ask yourself: what is more unacceptable – taking recreational drugs or performance enhancing drugs?

At the very most, they are as bad as one another. But, for a footballer, it is surely worse to inject yourself with steroids than it is to snort a line of cocaine. By doing the former you are gaining an unfair advantage on the field for yourself and your team, thus increasing the chances of winning games and trophies. In simple terms – you are cheating. By doing the latter, you may also be damaging your body and football’s image but you are not cheating. On the contrary, you are actually decreasing your chances of success on a personal and collective level. Diego Maradona once famously said that he would have been a far better player had he not been addicted to cocaine.

Flachi – two years

With this in mind, why are the punishments far harsher for recreational abuse?

It can be argued that if a player wishes to take recreational drugs, it is not the primary responsibility of the authorities. Granted, a player who takes cocaine is setting a bad example to young children and this will not go down well with sponsors, but surely this is the club’s problem first and foremost. If their player is being unprofessional they must deal with it because they are paying the player’s wages and it is their results and season that may suffer.

Clubs will deal in-house with other issues such as gambling or alcoholism. Yet, you don’t see national federations and football associations dishing out bans for alcoholic players, or those who enjoy illegal activities such as visiting brothels and hiring prostitutes.

The crackdown on recreational drugs is completely out of sync with reality. Only in football are players crucified for what often can be human error. Temptation is everywhere in this world, and sometimes when you are with the wrong company or at the wrong party – you can make an instinctive blunder. But with performance enhancers, footballers often know what they are doing. There is no doubt that there will be miscarriages of justice, as it seems was the case with Guardiola, but when an athlete takes steroids usually he is being calculating. For this reason, there deserves to be a larger punishment. In relative terms, it is like comparing murder with manslaughter.

Couto – four months

The music and film industry is dominated by stars who abuse drugs, but for some reason it is accepted. You didn’t see Lily Allen being banned from making records for two years when she did coke (although that would have been wonderful as her ‘music’ is terrible!), so why such the stigma attached with football?

While there should be no place in football for any type of illegal drug use, there should be more of a balance in punishment between the two different crimes. A person should not be suspended for his first recreational offence. Instead he should be helped to overcome his problem by his club. If he repeatedly offends, then the authorities can step in.

As for performance enhancers, sentences should be doubled or even tripled. In athletics, the 800m Italian runner Andrea Longo served out a two year ban for nandrolone at the same time the likes of Stam, Davids and Couto sat out four months for the same misdemeanour. While track-and-field is so drug-fuelled that it has almost become a farce, at least the punishment fits the crime when athletes are caught.

It is time there was a big rethink over drugs in football.

Carlo Garganese,

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