The stress in football continues to increase. Players raise the alarm and regularly take painkillers. At the World Cup, they are even allowed to use a highly addictive substance that even WADA classifies as a performance-enhancing substance.
It almost sounded as if Kim Jin-Su wanted to justify himself. “I’m not the only one who takes painkillers“, said the weary South Korean: “There is no one here who is pain free.” Sentences like this, made after the 0-0 draw against Uruguay in the World Cup preliminary round in Qatar, have long been part of the daily routine in football.
More and more games and increasing intensity push the pros to their limits. And the desert World Cup in winter acts like a fire accelerator for the World Cup participants. The ARD documentary “no limits – When football knows no borders” from the “Geheimsache Doping” series highlights how this problem can push professionals into gray areas of football’s billion dollar business.
Higher intensity, more injuries
“Ladies and gentlemen, FIFA, UEFA: Stop!” Jürgen Klopp shouted almost beggingly into the cameras during a press conference just before the start of the World Cup. Like the German team manager of FC Liverpool More and more coaches and players recently chose drastic words in view of the escalating burden.
Research underscores the calls for help. According to the international Howden Insurance Group’s injury index, injuries are on the rise across Europe’s top five leagues England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France. Last season, the number rose to 4,042 injuries with at least two days lost, more than 20 percent more than in 2019/20.
The intensity on the pitch continues to increase. The French data provider SkillCorner, which claims to work with more than 70 European professional clubs, has specific on behalf of the ARD doping editorial team trackingData collected and determined: In the last four years, the average number of fast runs (more than 20 km/h) and sprints (more than 25 km/h) per game has increased in the five top European leagues. Every second player at the World Cup in Qatar earns his money in Germany, England, Italy, Spain or France.
There are no reliable numbers as to whether the growing strain is also driving the abuse of doping in football, for example with anabolic steroids, which can accelerate regeneration in the event of injuries. Between 2013 and 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency WADA recorded 567 doping cases in football worldwide – on average one every four and a half days. WADA has not yet published the figures from 2020.
Players are not a priority
There is no one in sight who is contemplating concrete measures against the escalating burden. Former UEFA General Secretary Lars-Christer Olsson, who ended his career as a football official in 2021 after more than 30 years, told ARD: “Of course we discussed the busy international calendar.“But he couldn’t say,”that we had the health of the players high on the agenda, to be honest”.
Large associations like UEFA and FIFA, which are raking in more and more millions at the expense of the players with more and more competitions, hardly get any pressure from the scene. The German players’ union VDV also remains cautious. “We don’t ask for anything at all“, said VDV Vice-President Carsten Ramelow, the Vice World Champion of 2002. It’s about a “fair reconciliation of interests” that needs to be discussed.
DFB internal criticism of Bierhoff
As a result of the spiral of intensity, strain and pressure that is spiraling ever faster, players resort to painkillers. FIFA studies at the World Cups between 2002 and 2018 show an “alarming frequency” in the use of painkillers. Toni Graf-Baumann, member of the anti-doping commission of the German Football Association (DFB), said in an interview with the ARD doping editorial team that there was “no indication” that anything had changed to this day.
It’s about too much money and the interests are different – apparently also in the DFB. Graf-Baumann attested to DFB managing director Oliver Bierhoff, who in the run-up to the World Cup finals had classified the timing of the hosting in Qatar as little problematic, as “remote from reality”.
Tramadol: Allowed in Qatar, banned from 2024
One painkiller is now the focus of particular attention: tramadol, an opioid with a high potential for addiction that, according to an English study, has a performance-enhancing effect. The World Anti-Doping Agency WADA has also found in its monitoring program that tramadol is used “considerably” in three sports in particular: rugbycycling – the world association UCI banned the substance there in 2019 – and football.
WADA reacted and is now putting the drug on the doping list, if it is used in competition – but only from 2024. This means: At the World Cup in Qatar, a performance-enhancing and highly addictive substance may be used, for the use of which athletes Athletes will be banned for several years in just over a year.
No problem for Olivier Rabin, WADA’s Scientific Director: “We’re taking a little time to add tramadol to the banned list because we have a few formalities.“You have to make sure that “tested for tramadol in the same way all over the world“.
2000 Tramadol pills in Qatar
In the Premier League in particular, calls have recently been made to ban tramadol immediately. The English players’ union PFA reports on numerous professionals who have become addicted to the opioid. That led to “huge problems during and after my football career”. The PFA even offers a support program for affected professionals.
Tramadol was also an issue in Qatar. On the second day of the World Cup, Qatari customs announced that a man had been arrested at Doha airport with almost 2,000 tramadol pills in his luggage. The authority left an ARD query about a possible connection with the World Cup unanswered. FIFA also did not respond to questions about tramadol. It is unclear why she has not long since banned the drug like the UCI.
WADA does not provide exact figures on the frequency of tramadol use. She points out that she only informs the national anti-doping agencies about the exact results of the monitoring phase. According to an internal paper available to the ARD doping editorial team, tramadol was discovered in 163 footballer samples in 2018.
According to insiders, the increased use of tramadol can only be the beginning of a development. “For me it would be desirable if the lighter painkillers such as ibuprofen, diclofenac or Arcoxia were treated in the same way as tramadol.”, says Thomas Frölich, team doctor at TSG Hoffenheim and in the business for more than two decades. In his experience, common painkillers in football are often used so intensively that they also have a performance-enhancing effect. And this use, according to Frölich, is “actually doping”.