The international break kicks in + thoughts on doping in football

Good morning from Cork. Having spoken at an event last night and met some very interesting people, it’s typical that this morning is one of those days when there’s very little going on in the world of Arsenal.

I talked about doing the blog, and about how it’s been part of my morning routine/ritual for a long time now. So, here we are with nothing going on and they’ll be checking it to see what the hell I’ve got to say for myself.

*tumbleweed*

Great.

Nevertheless, the show, or the blog, must go on. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to finish this one in one sitting as I have to go catch a train back to Dublin, so we’ll see where it takes us. Anyway, with some of the players away on international duty, the ones not called up their countries get to have a bit of a rest.

There will be some time off and a bit of R&R for them – Francis Coquelin, I’m told, is going to spend time meeting with a donkey he sponsored – while behind the scenes there’s still work to be done on the ones who aren’t away because of injury. Early good news is that Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin are expected to be back for West Brom – but I’d hold off popping the champagne until we get official confirmation of that.

Meanwhile, the L’Equipe interview with Arsene Wenger (which I’m sure you’ve read by now but if not you can do so right here), continues to draw people in. The headlines in the media yesterday and this morning have focused on what he said about the possibility of doping in football:

In thirty years as a manager, I’ve never had my players injected to make them better. I never gave them any product that would help enhance their performance. I’m proud of that. I’ve played against many teams that weren’t in that frame of mind.

Some will point to the use of creatine in the early stages of his time at the club, but I think there’s a difference between using a supplement to gain muscle mass, and doping. Also, as far as I’m aware, the use of it was completely optional. If players felt like they wanted to, they could, and if not it wasn’t an issue.

We’ve all heard the stories of players injected with cortisone or something else to help them play through pain, and being perfectly honest I’d be very surprised if, after 20 years at the club, there haven’t been occasions when an important player has been offered something to help get them through a game.

I suspect there’s a bit of a grey area here in terms of language. Perhaps he has never insisted or demanded, but left it up to the player themselves to decide if they wanted something to dull the pain for the 90 minutes. Again though, we’re talking pain-killers and not performance enhancing drugs in the way that we would think of them.

Location update: I am now in the train station having mis-read the time of my departure. It’s half an hour later than I thought and my pathological hatred of being late for anything means I was here half an hour earlier than I needed to be anyway. Gah.

Anyway, back to doping in football, and I think you’ve got to be blind or have your head buried in the sand not to be, at the very least suspicious. You look at some teams and their almost complete resistance to injury, coupled with a relentless, unwavering energy in game after game after game. You look at others who have players out injured but who make returns that would make Jesus Christ look indolent.

Players who go from one club to another, and after a short period of time their physicality changes significantly. No longer a stick-thin strapling, instead we see a bulging-veined muscleman with shoulders that look like they could haul a freight-train. Techniques like blood spinning are used to shorten time out with injury, and once you start messing with blood then you can’t help wonder if clubs with enormous resources and expertise might be doing more with it than just whizzing it around in a centrifuge.

Yet to some extent, isn’t there an inevitability to it? Players are asked to do more and more and expected to do it at the highest level. I think I read somewhere that Alexis Sanchez hasn’t had a summer off in 5 or 6 years. Despite the fact there was a Copa America this summer just gone, there’s another one next summer to celebrate the centenary of the tournament.

Years and years without any real rest in the summer because that’s what the modern game demands. When we hear people who, supposedly, have the best interests of football at heart talk about how players need to be protected, then do absolutely nothing to protect them we know they’re just paying lip-service to it.

Grotesque vanity projects like the Confederations Cup are money makers, nothing more, and ultimately the welfare of players isn’t even a consideration. There will always be another player, another star striker, another gifted midfielder, and the show will go on. Fans, meanwhile, can see what’s being asked of the players yet complain vociferously the moment standards drop in any way. Everyone plays their part to some extent.

I should just clarify: I’m obviously not suggesting that Alexis is involved in anything other than the cycle of a career that his talent and ability have built. But, when you increase the demands on footballers, and as the pressure for clubs to be successful continues, we shouldn’t be surprised that for some there are ways of dealing with that which bend/break the rules.

In other sports, where they look much more closely and test much more vigorously, it’s still extremely difficult for them to uncover doping which we all understand to be widespread. Football doesn’t look that closely, and finds very little. Maybe there is no problem. Maybe it’s the cleanest sport in the world.

But, you know, maybe …

Finally, just in terms of that interview with Wenger, much has been said about him, what he says, and the way he views the world, not simply in terms of football either. Genuinely, it’s the best interview with him that I’ve ever read – so I think enormous credit has to go to the journalist, Erik Bielderman, for getting that out of him. While he was fortunate to have such a fascinating subject to work with, his work on that interview was exceptional and played a huge part in what makes it so great, so congratulations to him.

Right, that’s me done. I’m off to sit on a train for a few hours – obviously sitting with my back to the way the train is moving. A civilised way to travel.

Till tomorrow.

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