28 Jan 2013

Spain doping trial: could Spanish football be implicated?

Let us not cast aspersions over the quality of another country’s legal system but that the biggest doping trial in the history of sport commenced in spectacularly shambolic fashion must surely tell us something.

It took three hours to enter the courtroom – and at the time of writing, well after what should be the courtroom lunch break –  the trial has still not begun.

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A metaphor perhaps for the near decade it has taken for the Spanish authorities to bring Dr Eufemiano Fuentes to trial – not, mind, for doping per se, but instead for ‘endangering public health’.

Professional cyclist Jesus Manzano first ‘blew the whistle’ in 2004 that Fuentes was running an industrial scale doping programme.

Manzano was dismissed by the cycling hierarchy as another bitter and spurned wannabe who couldn’t hack it at the top level.

But his explanation was and always has been that he had taken badly ill after a botched blood transfusion – a transfusion that at the time was not illegal.

Manzano’s testimony sparked Operacion Puerto – which fingered many a cyclist, and led to Fuentes being banned in 2006.  But he never faced criminal charges – nearly a decade later he’s finally in court but in a compromise trial that reveals much about what the anti-doping world feels about Spain’s attitude to stamping out the drugs cheats.

For behind the now well rehearsed revelations and confessions about doping in cycling, rumours have been whispered for years that Dr Fuentes patient list went far beyond the discredited world of the professional peleton.  Tennis players.  Handball (yes, it’s big in Spain).  And football.

Which is where it gets really interesting.

How serious are the allegations? Even Dr Fuentes is quoted as saying that if he told everything he knew, the game would be up.

Manzano claims he had seen two former Brazilian players attend the clinic, and an ex-Spanish international.

But this morning despite our best efforts as Fuentes walked into court, he said nothing. Did you dope football and tennis players?  He steadfastly refused to answer.

If the allegations are true, any such programme would, it is argued, have needed the say so of senior politicians.

It was, so it’s said, all about creating a national project of pride.  How Spain  is reeling now – banks on their knees, the economy in crisis.

Meanwhile the present government is all guns behind Madrid’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.  On – wait for it – a ticket of transparency, trust, and confidence in their faltering state.

The stakes are high.  Perhaps higher than ever before.  But if this morning’s goings on are anything to go by, it may just be another sorry footnote in what might have been.  Lance Armstrong’s ‘confession’ proved what, exactly?

If sport – and not just cycling – is really to move on,  the world needs the full list of patients Dr Fuentes worked with.  What their treatment was.  Why it was necessary.  Or indeed, why it wasn’t.

Otherwise the rumours will continue to swirl – and 2013 will be no year zero for the fight against the dopers.