Lost beneath the sound of wires being tensed last week was a piece of news of potentially fundamental import for soccer. After years of mutual antipathy, FIFA and WADA finally agreed on a drug-testing policy for football. Under the new system, those players most closely scrutinised will be those involved in the Champions League and the international game, as well as those returning from long-term injury or suspension.
It's no surprise that it's been little discussed. Why would it be? Life must be lived, after all. And there is so much life at this stage of the season — gathered in the middle of a semi-final, poised on the edge of resolution — that it demands our attention, lest it fly past without us. There is little time or inclination to consider the navel at such moments.
Not that there is ever much of an appetite for this, anyway — not when it comes to drugs. When the matter is pondered upon, it is dismissed in the same synaptic flash. Football is such a technical game, the argument goes, and there is no drug on earth which will improve your technique. Cyclists take drugs. Baseball players and shot-putters and weightlifters take drugs. That sort of thing doesn't happen round here.
Perhaps this is so; but it would merely be down to chance, not because football is somehow innately resistant to it. No elixir will enable someone to pick out a pass through a forest of opponents; no potion will bestow upon its imbiber a killer feint. Some substances, however, will give you more upper-body strength, will make you run faster, will — and these are especially relevant — keep you going for longer and help you recover more quickly from one exertion in good time for the next.
Football fans are sometimes prone to complacent self-regard, to taking the "beautiful game" epithet too literally, almost to the point of dogma. Football's evident capacity for beauty can be elevated beyond reason in its contemplation. This ignores several things: that plenty of other sports are also capable of such beauty; that football is most often not especially beautiful (and that, indeed, the aim is just as much to negate the creativity we see as beauty); and that the ability to create beauty is partly, importantly, facilitated by being in a state of appropriate physical fitness. The first point is by the by here; but the latter two are important, because these principles can be directly affected by the intervention of chemistry (the synthetic kind, of course, not the mysterious "team" kind). It is not merely the sports that overwhelmingly rely on speed, power and stamina that are susceptible to these influences. Football is tough on the body; the pace of the game has increased, matches are frequent, and there is a growing desire for physical strength. Any team worth their salt would push the rules to their limits; and it is surely not unduly cynical to believe that some venture past those limits, not least when the approach of football officialdom has been, until now, less than urgent in clamping down on what problems there may be.
And this is the thing: we don't really know what problems there may be — or, perhaps, even what a problem is.
This is where the new testing policy becomes interesting. (That is, if it co-opts some of WADA's more Inquisitorial tendencies and is not merely an act of political expediency on FIFA's part — an issue for another day.) Our view on the issue of drugs in football seems vague and lacking in proper definition, because it has hardly been confronted. It has avoided the sleepless nights that currently has cycling staring at the ceiling in terror. If the new approach turns up something currently hidden behind a cloud of — what? Deception? Ignorance? Disingenuousness? — only then will we know how we really feel.
And how might that be? Maybe we would be shocked into shame. Or maybe it would have little or no practical effect. After all, morality and law are not the same thing. Law is definite. It may require interpretation, but it arrives at a verdict — something we surely appreciate as fans of sports, which require the constant application of such a process in order for them to function. But we don't live merely by law, and morality is fuzzy.
Consider cycling. Correct me if I'm wrong, cycling fans, but doping in that sport must have been an open secret for years. As far back as 1924, Albert Londres was reporting on how riders in the Tour de France had to resort to external assistance to get them through:
"You have no conception what this Tour de France is," said Henri. "It's a Calvary. Worse: the road to the Cross has only 14 stations; ours has 15. We suffer from start to finish. You want to know how we keep going? Here..." He pulled out a phial from his bag. "That's cocaine for the eyes. This is chloroform for the gums."
"This," said Ville, emptying his musette, "is liniment to put some warmth in our knees."
"And the pills? You want to see the pills? Take a look, here are the pills." Each one of them pulled out 3 boxes.
"Fact is," said Francis, "we keep going on dynamite."
It's been possible to know that this type of thing has been going on, yet lose oneself in admiration and wonder at the competitors' efforts. Baseball (again, correct me if I'm wrong) seems ultimately to have been more perturbed by the strike of 1994 than the recent spate of steroid scandals.
One of my favourite sporting memories is of Tyler Hamilton in the 2003 Grande Boucle. He crashed and broke his collarbone in the first stage. Not only did he finish the race — riding for three weeks with an injury that would do for most normal people — he won stage 16, which took in two hors catégorie climbs, following a 142 km breakaway. Come the finish in Paris, he was fourth in the general classification. That he failed a doping control in 2004 — and the Operación Puerto investigations suggest he was systematically doping during 2003 — barely diminishes the splendour of his achievement in my eyes.
(Hamilton, it should be noted, retired several weeks ago after failing another drug test.)
Maybe we would feel similarly about football. Or maybe we already do. The messy Juventus drugs scandal of the 1990s has, by and large, had little effect on our belief in football. What does this speak of? Is it that there are limits, but that they lie beyond the strict denotation of legislation? Is it a resigned acceptance of the human drive to get ahead any way one can? Is it that we are too busy living for the moment to care? Is it a collective delusion? Is it that football has become so big that it could not possibly be damaged by this? Is that we are afraid that it could be damaged by this?
Are different sports distinct realities? Are they subject to the same universal laws? Are they entirely their own cultures or does their common human element give them a common fate? Will we ever know?
What do we believe?