Biggest Doping Scandals in Football

Josip Brajkovic
Josip Brajkovic
Published: 21.11.2023.


If anything is rushed under the carpet in the world of football - or sports - it's the topic of doping. But perhaps, football families are the ones most prone to hoarding the unwanted reports below the rug. Especially considering how many footballers are there, but how few doping stories are there. Yet, when they happen and break out in public, they explode. As proven by the biggest doping scandals in football.

Considering that the biggest doping scandals in football are usually filled with top names of the sport. The players whose price tags have exceeded €100,000,000 marks, players who won awards, trophies, and are ultimate fan favourites.

While it is important to highlight the meaning of the very word "doping." As it can mean taking a substance with the intent to increase the athlete's performance. But ALSO taking a substance with the intent to decrease the athlete's performance.

We will be looking just at the doping scandals where substances intended to increase performance levels were used. Not the street drugs scandals like that of Adrian Mutu and Diego Maradona with cocaine.

However, one of the two finds himself on the list regardless.

Andre Onana in 2021 (Ajax & Cameroon) - 12-month suspension*

Andre Onana

One of the last big doping scandals to hit Europe, Andre Onana was found guilty by UEFA when tested positive for Furosemide, a diuretic, in 2021. Onana's bloodwork showed the presence of Furosemide, a compound whose suspected use for doping is that of covering up other drugs. A response that is usual in these cases followed: Onana claimed he mistakenly used a drug which his wife had prescribed, looking for an aspirin.

Onana, then a goalkeeper for Ajax, was given a 12-month ban by UEFA, yet it was shortened to nine months after Onana's appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Onana was in the midst of contract talks with Ajax at the time of the scandal, refusing to sign an extension. He left Amsterdam six months after his punishment expired.

Pep Guardiola in 2001 (Brescia & Spain) - 4-month ban

Pep Guardiola

The world's most renowned manager has a secret. Maybe even the fact that he played for Brescia at the time escapes many, going to the side to replace Andrea Pirlo in midfield. But more importantly, his first stint with Brescia, was cut short as the Spaniard tested positive on two samples for a well-known substance Nandrolone. A word known in bodybuilding circles, it is an anabolic steroid used to increase muscle mass. Considering Pep was in the later stages of his career, many were quick to believe the reports.

Initially, Guardiola was punished with a four-month suspension which he served, and a fine of €50,000. An interesting theory arose, that considering Guardiola was known for his slim frame with almost nonexistent muscle mass - a cover-up was done. Suggesting that in fact Pep tested positive for cocaine, yet the public was notified for nandralone for the player to save face. This reputation of enjoying white powder has followed him to the dugout.

Another turn of events follows this peculiar football doping scandal, in late 2007, six years after the positive test, Pep was cleared by the Italian legal system. Yet the Italian Olympic Committee objected to the absolution decision and appealed themselves. However, that effort was too denied and Guardiola was fully exonerated in 2009, while he was already the manager of Barcelona.

Paul Pogba in 2023 (Juventus & France) - facing two to four years of suspension

Paul Pogba

Not quite to the level of Mario Balotelli in terms of frequency, yet Paul Pogba's career has been marked by controversies too! Perhaps, even bigger ones than with Supermario, while getting a fraction of the bad reputation. After finally stumbling back to match fitness after several shipwrecked seasons, Pogba was hit by a failed drug test. With artificial testosterone found in his system!

Paul denied the intention of breaking the rules, propelling the story into the biggest doping scandals in football history quickly. The tests were conducted in August of 2023, and the news broke public in September. By November, it's still unknown what the punishment is going to be but the official guideline for such cases is two to four years of suspension! In such a case, Juventus would certainly terminate Pogba's contract without having to compensate the player.

Samir Nasri in 2018 (Manchester City & France) - 18 months suspension

Samir Nasri

If you forget how good the former Arsenal and Manchester City player was, consider that he was named as the best French player of the year 2010. His doping scandal came at a later date, when his career was already in a decline. Funny how that pattern keeps coming up with these doping stories. In 2018, Nasri was on a two-year contract with a Turkish side Antalyaspor when he was caught for breaching WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) rules in December 2016 by receiving an intravenous drip of 500 millilitres of water containing nutrients. The initial suspension was six months, but another 12 months were added after UEFA's ethics and disciplinary inspector insisted.

Nasri's doping story is especially bewildering considering how it was revealed that he breached the rules. Not by a test, but by a public social media post of a company that administered the IV shot, bragging about their famous client. The event happened in 2016 when Nasri was in the USA, as a Sevilla player on loan from City.

Diego Armando Maradona in 1994 (Newell's Old Boys & Argentina) - 15 months suspension

Diego Armando Maradona

Besides football, Maradona was infamous for his cocaine addiction, and he suffered the legal consequences for that substance use as well. But the Argentinian also had issues with the use of a more traditional performance-enhancing drug - called ephedrine. Used primarily to battle fatigue and improve exercise tolerance, Armando was caught doing it on the biggest stage - during the 1994 World Cup in the United States! He was sent home after playing in just two games.

In his autobiography, Maradona claimed that the result was due to his personal trainer giving him an energy drink Rip Fuel. And that the issue was that the American version, unlike the Argentinian he was usually using, contained the substance. Maradona had just returned to the game after serving a 15-month ban for cocaine use and immediately faced another hiatus. He returned after to play one season with Boca Juniors, but his international career ended with the doping scandal mess after 17 years of servitude.

Jaap Stam in 2001 (Lazio & The Netherlands) - five-months suspension*

Jaap Stam - 1.jpg
By, CC BY 2.5, Link

If any of the athletes on this list of biggest doping scandals in football didn't pass the "eye test" that is used by bodybuilders, it would probably be Jaap Stam. Always intimidating on the pitch - and off it to be honest - Stam didn't have a bulky physique but was synonymous with strength in football. Traces of nandrolone, the anabolic steroid were found in his blood and the centre-back was given a five-month ban. The imposing Dutchman appealed the decision and it was partially accepted, reducing his ban to four months.

Stam was strongly worded when dismissing his case, stating he would never jeopardize his playing future by doing such activity and that he was never a cheat. It's worth noting that in 2001, another Lazio member, Fernando Couto, also tested positive for nandrolone. But he is not the only Stam teammate who was suspended for the same substance.

Edgar Davids in 2001 (Juventus & The Netherlands) - five months suspension*

Edgar Davids

Following a Serie A clash with Udinese as a member of Juventus in March of 2021, Edgar Davids tested positive for nandrolone too. His second test also tested positive for nandrolone and the authorities took action banning him from football for five months. Known affectionally as Pitbull, for his aggressive playing style, Davids also rejected the notion that he willingly and knowingly took nandrolone. His punishment was also cut short to four months. However, besides Jaap Stam, a national team colleague, their captain Frank De Boer also tested positive for the same substance.

So if these biggest doping scandals in football have shown us anything, is that they easily depict patterns in use. It's usually done by players who are in the later stages of their careers, and that PED use is "contagious" in a way, with clusters appearing to be connected.



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