North Korea officials blame traditional medicine using musk deer glands for five of their players testing positive for steroids at the Women's World Cup in soccer's biggest doping scandal in nearly two decades.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Saturday that after two players were caught during the tournament this month, FIFA tested the rest of the North Korean squad and found three more positive results.
"This is a shock," Blatter said at a news conference. "We are confronted with a very, very bad case of doping and it hurts."
Colombia's reserve goalkeeper Yineth Varon was provisionally suspended in late June for failing an out-of-competition test before the World Cup. The Colombian Football Federation said she had hormonal treatment that led to a failed drug test, the first doping case in the history of the women's World Cup.
FIFA annually spends some $30 million US on 35,000 doping tests. Despite the cases at the women's World Cup, "doping really is a marginal, fringe phenomenon in football," Blatter said.
The last doping case at a major event came at the men's 1994 World Cup in the United States, when Diego Maradona was kicked out after testing positive for stimulants.
FIFA has already met with a North Korean delegation and heard arguments that the steroids were accidentally taken with traditional Chinese medicines based on musk deer glands to treat players who had been struck by lightning on June 8 during a training camp in North Korea.
The case will be taken up by FIFA's disciplinary committee. Players, male or female, face a ban of up to two years for such infractions.
Defenders Song Jong Sun and Jong Pok Sim tested positive for steroids after North Korea's first two group games and were suspended for the last match. The team was eliminated in the first round after losses to the United States and Sweden and a draw with Colombia.
Blatter said the North Korean federation "wrote to us and they presented their excuses. They said that a lightning strike was responsible for this."
The names of the three other players would only be made public at a later stage, FIFA said.
Naturally occurring substances
The gland in question comes from musk deer living in a large swathe of Asia from Siberia to North Korea. The hairy 4-centimetre gland is usually cut open to extract a liquid that is used for medical purposes.
Doping officials have been concerned about such naturally occurring substances in recent years. During the run-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, FIFA's concerns focused on African plants that could players an unfair advantage by providing energy boosts or helping to heal muscle injuries.
FIFA investigators who discovered evidence of doping in the North Korean samples were in uncharted territory as such steroids had not previously been encountered. Experts from the World Anti-Doping Agency were called in to confirm the breach of doping rules.
"It was very complex," FIFA's chief medical officer Jiri Dvorak said. He added that the medical officer of the North Korea team provided a sample of the medicine to help their analysis.
The musk gland extract "it is not part of the world of doping," Dvorak said. "It is really the first case in which this has been discovered."
The North Koreans first mentioned the lightning incident after losing their opening match to the United States. When North Korean officials were asked later, they refused to elaborate on the circumstances.
North Korean coach Kim Kwang Min said after their first match against the United States that "more than five" players were sent to the hospital. Goalkeeper Hong Myong Hui, four defenders and some of the midfielders were the players most affected, Kim said.
"The physicians actually said the players were not capable of playing in the tournament," Kim said through an interpreter.
Dvorak said the information was still sketchy.
"We saw some pictures with ambulances and saw that some players were taken from the pitch, but that is all we have," he said.
FIFA also got information from North Korea about the initial hospital treatment of the players and "this very first report did not include the traditional Chinese medicine," Dvorak said.
The tournament ends Sunday with the final between the United States and Japan.