Another bust-up is brewing between the World Anti-Doping Agency and FIFA, soccer's world governing body.
This time it is over WADA's insistence that players make themselves available for random out-of-competition testing for one hour a day, 365 days a year. FIFA thinks that is asking too much.
Ever since WADA came into existence 10 years ago there has been considerable friction between the two organizations. This is merely the latest irritant.
The "whereabouts rule" came into effect in January 2009 along with the revised WADA code. Athletes don't enjoy being awakened and asked to submit to a urine or blood test without notice, but WADA insists this is the only way to catch the cheats and to provide a deterrent to those who would cheat.
FIFA has sought an exemption to the rule and has solicited the support of other team sports. The prospect of millionaire players being disturbed on their holidays apparently is unpalatable to the rulers of international soccer.
"We are dealing with quite a large number of professional players who are actually competing somewhere, on average, between 48 and 49 weeks a year," FIFA's chief medical officer, Prof. Jiri Dvorak, explained. "So our goal is to have a very stringent testing program during the high-profile competitions between October and May."
Existing tests were sufficient, FIFA says
FIFA suggests there is no need for stringent testing during the times when there is a pause between league schedules.
"The summer break is far away from those competitions," said Dvorak. "So in order to have a really efficient testing procedure and to guarantee players participating in those top competitions, such as Champions League, they are sufficiently tested at least two months prior to the competition and also two months after the competition. So the three weeks summer break is really irrelevant."
Dvorak said that players with clubs participating in the UEFA Champions League tournament are subjected to testing by their respective national anti-doping organizations, as well as by UEFA and FIFA, and are with their clubs for an average of 6.3 days a week including travel time to and from matches.
"During this high-risk time we are concentrating on the team activities. We know exactly where they are and what they are doing," he stated. "So we have sufficient time to test them. This includes, for example, when Manchester United travels to Porto. We can test them on their destination where they are playing. They are off duty on average 0.7 days a week. So they are actually always 'on duty.'"
Some say that many soccer players are currently being tested too much, not too little.
John Bramhall, deputy director of the Professional Footballers Association, which represents thousands of players, claimed that one English international playing for a London club in the Champions League has been subjected to 16 tests this season alone.
"I think it would be naive to say there wasn't a potential for a doping problem in any sport," Bramhall conceded. "That's why we feel there is a need for a doping control program within professional football. It's really to do with a risk assessment undertaken by sports when allocating resources to programs and how intensive they have to be because of those risks. We feel the 'whereabouts rule,' within professional football, is disproportionate to those risks."
Few cases of soccer doping: FIFA
Dvorak pointed out that the last time a big-name professional soccer player tested positive for anabolic steroids was nine years go. At that time there was a spate of positive tests for nandrolone. Among those caught were Dutch internationals Jaap Stam, Frank De Boer and Edgar Davids, as well as Christophe Dugarry of France and Portuguese captain Fernando Couto. Dugarry was later cleared on a technicality.
"In 2007 we had 11 cases of anabolic steroids worldwide in football," Dvorak said. "There is approximately $30 million spent on anti-doping a year. If we take an average of 10 positive cases a year, it costs $3 million to catch one person who has doped on anabolic steroids. We have to look at what makes sense."
But WADA works on the premise that no matter what the sport, some athletes will try to cheat by taking performance-enhancing drugs. The absence of a comprehensive out-of-competition testing program makes that even more likely.
The agency also shares information gathered from its network of accredited laboratory scientists and even from athletes caught doping. Asked if it has information on what soccer players might be doing, David Howman, WADA's director general, was coy.
"Yes," he said curtly. "Am I going to tell you? No. We get information or intelligence, if you like, on a pretty regular basis and pass it on to those who conduct testing, and that includes ways of cheating."
"The code works 365 days a year and there will be no relenting from that or change of approach, because if you start giving holidays, what you are essentially doing is giving holidays to dope."
North American soccer players don't have to undergo the stringent international tests. Major League Soccer is not a signatory to the WADA code and operates its own anti-doping program.
Each MLS player can be tested randomly at least twice a year without prior notice. While the WADA code calls for an automatic two-year suspension in the case of a positive doping test, the MLS commissioner can decide the punishment of a guilty MLS player.
EPO use hard to detect
One of the foremost experts in WADA's army is Prof. Christiane Ayotte, director of the WADA-accredited laboratory in Montreal. She said there's a trend in which athletes are using the endurance drug EPO — which increases the production or red blood cells — in smaller doses so that the percentage of red blood cells, or hematocrit, does not exceed the imposed limit.
"They are using EPO in smaller doses but more frequently," she revealed. "That way the hematocrit won't go that high but will be sustained relatively high, but it's not detectable. It can clear the system within 20 hours."
A single dose of EPO can provide a boost in endurance lasting up to two weeks. Although soccer players have not been caught using EPO, there is a strong potential that players could be using this.
Among those who believe soccer players might find EPO advantageous is Victor Conte, the man at the forefront of the BALCO laboratory scandal involving Barry Bonds, Marion Jones and many other professional athletes.
"Absolutely, EPO would benefit a soccer player enormously," Conte said. "What people fail to understand is that by increasing production of red blood cells you are transporting more oxygen to the muscles and you are also removing carbon dioxide, ammonia and lactic acid, all the byproducts of exercise. EPO is a recovery drug. It's a training drug."
Conte said he has not worked with any soccer players, but that when he supplied several NFL players with the substance, all reportedly had extra energy in the fourth quarter. He agrees with Ayotte's assessment.
"Lower doses are less detectable," he declared. "How quickly it clears depends on how it's administered. If you do 4000 I.U. and do it intravenously then it will clear on average in 19 hours. A subcutaneous injection takes on average 43 hours. Smarter guys use intravenous because it clears earlier."
Conte also agreed with WADA's position on the whereabouts rule.
"I think an athlete can do a lot in three weeks with intensive training," he said, "and with the use of anabolic steroids you can gain an explosive strength base that will last for some time."