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Jordan Henderson has provided a unique insight into the belief and commitment which miraculously swept Liverpool into the Champions League final. Liverpool skipper Henderson revealed he was barely able to walk after a cynical stamp from Barcelona’s Clement Lenglet early in the epic semi-final.
t half-time, there were real fears he would not be able to continue, but the midfielder explained that nothing was going to deny him the best night of his life. “I was struggling when I got a whack on the knee, it was dead,” he said. “The doctors said just keep it moving. I managed to get to half-time and I had some treatment, painkillers, all that stuff, which helped.”
His description is matter-of-fact. But, when pressed, Henderson’s answer showed the warrior spirit which allowed his side to deliver the greatest night in Anfield history. “There was a jab and tablets. Both. Everything. I said just give us everything,” he said, with a broad smile.
Neven Subotic says it’s the player who gets the most pressure, and who has the most to lose
City-Press via Getty Images
May 8, 2019
Jonathan Sachse was two years old in the summer of 1987 when the Tour de France started in his native Berlin and can’t really explain why cycling always fascinated him. His first commissions as a journalist were cycling stories, doping stories, and he spent his first three summers in a press room on the Tour, asking awkward but pertinent questions of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Team Sky.
We join him on a midsummer day in 2019 at a training camp in the Austrian Alps. He’s taken a bike to a quiet corner of the woods and is waiting for a team riding towards him. He’s been stalking the riders at their hotel for days, sifting through their trash for discarded syringes, swabs and medicines – the dirty little secrets of the pro cycling trade. But this is different.
These aren’t cyclists.
“I’m ready,” he notes, in the prologue of his latest investigation. “Stretched out before me is a white, pebble trail that leads from the small mountain village of Mosern through a forest in the Austrian Alps, and pastures that extend to some sports fields. At this precise moment, the football players of the Bundesliga club RB Leipzig are training there. They will have to pass me on their way out.
Jonathan Sachse: ‘I wanted to write about stuff that was in the public interest’
“Many international clubs travel to Austria in summer to prepare for the season. In the shadow of the Alps, the Champions League semi-finalist Ajax Amsterdam, as well as several clubs from England and Russia are getting ready for tournaments in 2019. They use the time to brace themselves for the stress of the coming months. The players from Leipzig are doing circuit training this morning.
“It’s been three months since nine colleagues and I started our investigation into painkiller abuse in football. At this point in time, we’ve made 73 phone calls and written countless emails. We’ve contacted doctors, officials and football professionals from the Bundesliga with requests to tell us about their experiences. Some of them asked to have their name redacted. Others have spoken openly.
“They talked about Volteren, opioids, and infusions. Some mention performance-enhancing substances and painkillers distributed in locker rooms as if they were candy, and report dubious practices in clubs abroad. Others do not want to say anything. It is particularly difficult to approach active players. They are shielded by their clubs.
“The players from Leipzig come to the sports field twice a day, for an hour and a half each time. After that, as I observed yesterday, most players will ride bicycles on the gravel road for the three kilometres back to their hotel. No one from the club’s press department will be present. This could be my chance.
“My plan is to catch up with them by bike, say hello, and start a friendly conversation. ‘Oh, so you’re professional football players?’ Then, I’ll broach the subject of interest. I’m looking for players who will talk about their everyday life – injuries, pressure, recovery – about testing limits, and about painkillers. Because that is exactly what our investigation is about.
“The five largest football leagues in Europe – England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France – generated more than €15 billion in the 2017/2018 season. The European Championship – now postponed due to Covid-19 – was poised to earn another billion euros in revenue. The football industry is thriving, and with millions to be earned in salaries and bonuses, there’s an incentive for players to stay in the game.
“The pressure to perform is high. If your body starts to break down, it must be helped – with painkillers and possibly other substances. Because, in this business, hardly anyone can afford injuries or pain.
“The training is over. The Leipzig players are approaching. Three, then seven, then 11 on bikes. I turn onto the gravel path and let two of them pass me. Three more follow. They are riding pretty fast. Is the return trip part of the training? I accelerate and try to keep up with them, fighting my way up the slope – but I still can’t get close.
“The headwind muffles my timid ‘Hello’ and the hope of getting some information goes with it. After two minutes, the last one to pass me has disappeared into the forest. Bundesliga professionals. On e-bikes. Faster than a curious journalist.”
* * * * *
The date is May 28, 1997. It’s Jonathan’s 12th birthday and his team, Borussia Dortmund, are playing Juventus in the final of the Champions League. Marcel Reif, the best commentator in Germany, is calling the game for ZDF. Dortmund have scored twice and are cruising for 65 minutes but Alessandro Del Piero has pulled one back for Juventus, and now it’s squeaky bum time.
Lars Ricken comes off the bench for Dortmund. He’s 20 years old and has been playing for just 16 seconds when he latches onto a pass from Andreas Moller and chips the Juventus ‘keeper, Angelo Peruzzi, with his first touch of the ball. Jonathan can’t remember feeling so excited, and goes to bed that night with Marcel Reif’s voice and the soundtrack of the goal playing over and over in his head: “Lars! . . Now! . . . Shoot! . . . Ja!”
The seed was sown. He wanted to be a commentator. He wanted to be Marcel Reif.
Football has had plenty of great commentators over the years – Reif, Kenneth Wolstenholme, Herbert Zimmerman, Brian Moore – but they haven’t been at all great at calling it as it is. They’ll capture the mood and stir the passion and describe the goals like their trousers are on fire but it’s a performance. A show. Entertainment.
I mean, how many times have you ever heard this: ‘Mein Gott! What a bunch of cheating bastards! This coach is immoral! His doctor is unethical! His team are an absolute disgrace!’ Nope, never happens. And that was always going to be a problem if you were wired like Jonathan Sachse.
His parents were social workers and instilled his passion for rules, ethics and values and contempt for social injustice. He finished school and took a degree in sports journalism at a private college in Berlin but the allure of being a commentator had faded.
“I did a couple of internships with some of the German TV stations,” he says. “At ZDF, I met a colleague, Daniel Drepper, and we were (given the doping brief) for the Tour de France. We spoke a lot about journalism and what we wanted to do. I wasn’t a fan of sport as entertainment. I wanted to investigate. I wanted to write about stuff that was in the public interest . . . doping . . . corruption . . . the abuse of power.”
It was with Drepper, and four like-minded friends, that he founded ‘Correctiv’, Germany’s first non-profit news organisation in 2014. One of their first stories was ‘Who owns the City?’ an investigation into some shady dealings in the real estate market. They followed it with an exposé on exorbitant salaries in the charity sector, and an investigation into the huge sums of money – tens of millions of euros – slushing around the German legal system.
They were also becoming curious about the nation’s favourite sport.
Why was there so little coverage of doping in football? Was it possible it didn’t exist in the world’s most lucrative game? The notion seemed preposterous. They started investigating and writing stories: How Prevalent are Drugs in Soccer? Doping Tests at the FIFA World Cup. The Long Journey of World Cup Doping Samples.
Here’s a piece written by Drepper: “Why do so few players fail doping tests? Because testing in soccer isn’t intelligent. Only the dumb ones fail. In the Bundesliga there are no blood tests, so blood doping can’t be proven. Players in Germany are tested on average just every third year.”
Here’s Sachse on a column written by Jens Lehmann, the former Arsenal goalkeeper: “Lehman writes about his time at Arsenal in London. He and his teammates took (injections) ‘without asking questions’ and with ‘blind faith in the physicians’. He believes that the physicians didn’t give any illegal substances, but he is not a hundred per cent sure about that . . . His column shows again that a lot of football players have a different point of view on doping as it is defined by the World Anti-Doping Agency (which has a very clear list of forbidden substances and methods).”
It was through a shared interest in the abuse of prescription drugs that Sachse established contact with Hajo Seppelt, a fellow citizen of Berlin and the world’s foremost sport investigator. They met for coffee, shared some contacts and spent a year and a half collaborating on a new project.
Pass that Pill: Painkillers in football – Doping in disguise? a film by Seppelt and an editorial team at ARD, was broadcast five weeks ago in Germany. ‘A Kick On Pills: Painkillers in Football’ was published the same day by Sachse and a team at Correctiv.
The film begins with an amateur player packing his kit on a regular match day in German football. His towel. His boots. His tablets. He’s not in pain but he won’t – like his friends on the team – play without painkillers. “I think it’s a mental thing,” he says. “You feel better with Ibuprofen in your system.”
Sachse begins with his bike ride in Austria, and a story about FIFA: “In 2002, the world football association, FIFA, started to research the abuse of painkillers in football. FIFA experts were soon able to prove that painkillers are part of everyday life at the World Cup. In 2018, one in four players in Russia took painkillers before each match – one particular player used three different painkillers.
“The findings of the under 17 and under 20 World Cups in 2005 and 2007 were also shocking: almost half of the players took painkillers while competing at the tournament.
“FIFA’s internal research into painkillers was conducted by (the former Chief Medical Officer) Jiri Dvorak. Under his leadership, and after several tournaments, the sheets showing the medications taken by all national players during the 72 hours before kick-off were evaluated. ‘The result was devastating,’ Dvorak says. ‘When we evaluated the numbers, we saw that the consumption of medications is enormous.'”
The consequences are often devastating.
Nine minutes of Seppelt’s film have passed and he’s whisked us from the amateur team in Munich to the 1998 UEFA Cup Winners Cup final between VfB Stuttgart and Chelsea in Stockholm. The Stuttgart manager, Joachim Low, is the current German national coach. His team lose the final to a goal from Gianfranco Zola. But the nightmare has not yet begun.
Thomas Frolich is the team doctor at Stuttgart. He tells Seppelt about a player who vomited blood after the match. He had given the player a Voltaren for an ailment before the game. He started coughing blood on the journey back to the team hotel. “I monitored him the whole night,” Frolich says, “gave him infusions and medications, and then it came out that he had taken aspirin (without telling me) at the same time as my Voltaren. And then this acute bleeding occurred.”
Frolich does not reveal the name of the player. When Seppelt eventually tracks him down, he declines to comment.
* * * * *
If three years on the Tour de France had taught Sachse about anything it was omerta – the code of silence – so it was no great surprise to find it in football. In 2002, when Riccardo Agricola, a doctor at Juventus, was charged with supplying illicit substances to the players, the prosecutor, Raffielo Guariniello, struggled to find a witness. “It’s easier to find a confessing Mafioso than a confessing soccer professional,” he observed.
The same applied to questions about painkillers when Seppelt contacted the Bundesliga clubs. Seven did not respond. Eleven rejected the request. “The basic response was,” he notes, “medical matters are private matters, not a public issue. Therefore no information will be given.”
Sachse found the same when he started calling players: “Most former professional footballers do not want to share their history of painkiller abuse. They do not even want to be quoted anonymously. A ‘tough guy’ mentality permeates the sport. Few people even dare to talk about weaknesses after finishing their career.
“Their stories show how, for decades, footballers have become ill due to the use of painkillers. Stiff feet, early arthrosis, life-threatening atrial fibrillation; they now have to live with these physical issues for the rest of their lives.”
Not everyone refused to talk.
Dani Schahin is a former Dusseldorf player and youth international: “If you are dependent on playing, it’s unrealistic to continue without painkillers,” he says. “You have to function, you have to play. There are tournaments . . . the national team is lining-up . . . you don’t want to drop out or perform less well because you are in pain.
“For the last three or four years, nothing was possible without painkillers. And even if I was fine, I just took them before the game pre-emptively so that I could start the game without worrying that my knee was going to blow up in the 15th or 20th minute.”
Jonas Hummels played for SPVG Unterhaching and had four injections once before a game: “We knocked Leipzig out of the cup and Beyer Leverkusen were waiting,” he says. “I was the captain. It meant a huge amount to the club and a huge amount to me. I (had a knee injury) and asked the doctor what he could do as the regular medication (painkillers) wasn’t working. He suggested a local anaesthetic. I said ‘Sure, go ahead’.”
Neven Subotic was the only current player to speak to Sachse on the record. The 31-year-old Serbian international has played more than 200 games in the Bundesliga for Mainz, Dortmund (winning two championships with Jurgen Klopp) and Union Berlin.
“From what I’ve noticed over the last 14 years, Ibuprofen is handed out like smarties,” he says. “It’s used across the board and I’ve met a lot of players who, week after week, need additional painkillers immediately before a game.
“I believe the whole system is missing an official to make sure that everything is done properly. The system as it currently stands works through the transfer of pressure. It’s about earning more money. The clubs need to be successful, and so the coaches feel pressured.
“The coach passes that pressure on to the assistant coaches or to the physicians. And in the end, it’s the player who gets the most pressure, and who has the most to lose. He can’t play unless he takes painkillers.”
The conflicts of interest are a theme explored by Seppelt. He also addresses the issue of painkillers as performance enhancement. The World Anti-Doping-Agency, he observes, defines three criteria in its anti-doping code. A substance should be added to the prohibited list if it helps to enhance sport performance, represents a health risk, or if taking it violates the spirit of sport.
Painkillers tick a couple of those boxes but get a free pass. “There is a general opinion that painkillers are not performance enhancing,” Olivier Rabin, the WADA science director says.
Tim Gohlert, a former player and now a general practitioner disagrees. “The bottom line is that you earn money playing football at the weekend, especially as a professional,” he says. “A painkiller can help you train more often during the week, to train even better, and to train with less pain. Therefore it is naturally very tempting to use them to feel less sensation, to be able to train or play.”
Thomas Frolich, now the team doctor at Hoffenheim, concurs: “Any unnatural increase in performance is doping,” he says. “We in high performance sports of course say that doping is only what is on the list. But doping is, in reality, basically defined in such a way that every unnatural enhancement of performance, meaning outside of training or normal nutrition, is considered doping.”
Hans Geyer, an anti-doping researcher from Cologne, also takes issue with WADA and believes the abuse of painkillers contradicts the ethics of sport: “If you can only do sports after taking painkillers and medication, then that is very strange.”
Five weeks have passed since the investigation was published. For Jonathan, and Hajo, it’s been an interesting time. “On Thursday, the German football association (DFB) and the Bundesliga federation (DFL) and the German Anti-Doping Agency, had a two-hour meeting in Frankfurt that was focused on our investigation,” Jonathan says. “We don’t have any details yet, but they spoke about prevention and starting some research into the extent of painkiller abuse.
“And I’ve had contact with people from some Bundesliga teams, so my feeling is that we have only just kicked off. This story is going to run.”
He sounded pleased.
You can read the full Correctiv investigation, and watch the full ARD film in English on the website (correctiv.org)