Wenger is right, The FA, FIFA, and UEFA need blood testing

Baseball is one of the world’s most boring sports. I’ve never seen a Cricket match, so I can’t say definitively that Baseball is the most boring sport in the world, but it has to be in the top tier of mind numbingly boring sports. Baseball is two hours of crotch grabbing and 10 minutes of action. But there was a brief moment in my adult life that I watched Baseball: the 1998 Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire home run record chase.

Hype had built up over several seasons before 1998 as sluggers like Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Belle each hit over 50 home runs in a season for the first time since 1990. But it was McGwire who burst onto the national scene and announced a real challenge to Roger Maris’ record of 61 when he hit 58 homers in 1997.

The spring of 1998 Major League Baseball hyped McGwire’s chances of breaking the 37 year old record and the story was so compelling that even people who dislike Baseball, folks like me, tuned in to watch. Baseball was at its lowest ebb in the sport’s history, having suffered a labor dispute that canceled the World Series in 1994. Having a player break the home run record was exactly the kind of shot in the arm that Baseball needed.

McGwire broke Maris’ record and so did Sammy Sosa. It was compelling viewing as each player seemed to match the other hit for hit going down the stretch toward post season. But even the untrained eye could tell that there was something odd about McGwire and Sosa’s bodies. And even then there were rumors that both men “juiced” or took illegal steroids.

It turns out that they did juice. And so did Barry Bonds, who would break the home run record three years later, an event that, again, even I tuned in to see. By that point there were more than just rumors that these players had been breaking the law, it was so plainly obvious that even the Simpsons did a parody, in an episode called “Homer at Bat” they exaggerated the effects of steroid use, which results in unusual growth of the extremities.

Major League Baseball, no matter how you spin this, benefitted from the use of steroids. People came back to watch Baseball because of these freakish acts of superhuman strength and timing. We will never see a human being hit 73 home runs again, unless doping is legalized. Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa took the fall, but at the time steroid use was rampant in Baseball. Everyone knew about it and many players took them.

Arsene Wenger has now made several statements regarding doping in Football over this last week. He has said that he categorically never gave shots to players to help them heal but that he is certain that other teams have and that the playing field is not level. The FA have called for him to clarify his statements and he has done so publicly calling, most recently, for players to be blood tested and for a more robust testing scheme.

Most pundits think that Wenger’s remarks about he playing field being unfair refer to his time in France but I don’t think that’s the case. I think he’s talking about the blood spinning and other scandals which have been public knowledge since 2005.

When he was at Inter Milan, former Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, casually referred to Chelsea’s “Dr. Needles” and how Dr. Needles would get Petr Cech back from a calf strain just in time to face Inter in the second leg of their Champions League tie. Dr. Needles didn’t work his magic and Ross Turnbull featured instead of Cech.

Martin Samuels, writing for the Daily Mail, identified Dr. Needles as Dr. Bryan English. Of course Mourinho knew about Dr. English and his needling, he hired the man.

As it turns out, Dr. Needles’ speciality is blood spinning. Technically, blood spinning is legal. They take some blood from you, spin it up and beef it up with some legal drugs, and then inject it into the injury site which helps the player heal faster.

But Dr. Needles and his blood spinning aren’t the only ones giving performance enhancing drugs. Most recently, Arsenal lost to Dinamo Zagreb in the UEFA Champions League. Three of the Dinamo players were randomly tested and one turned up an initial positive result. But the result against Dinamo can’t be vacated unless two of the three tests come back positive.

This is one of the problems Wenger would like fixed. It’s nearly impossible to find a second doped player if you only test three of the 18. If you know anything about stats, you know that if you have a population of 18 it’s absolutely ridiculous to sample just 3. The confidence interval on that sample is +/- 50%. In other words, if you sample 3 of 18 and you find a player taking PEDs it’s simply luck. You have to sample all 18 players or at least 15 of the 18 players to get a reasonably accurate sample.

And if you think that Dinamo are the only team with players who were doping, think again. Just this year Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes was given a slap on the wrist in Spain for admitting to giving athletes EPO and other illegal substances. In scenes reminiscent of Lance Armstrong’s bags of blood, Dr. Fuentes kept blood from athletes across a broad range of sports: tennis, cycling, and football.

The cyclist who blew the whistle on Dr. Fuentes, Jesus Manzano, has said that he personally saw famous football players going to Dr. Blood‘s clinic. And Fuentes himself offered to name names, though the judge in Spain has refused.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that more football players haven’t been busted for using PEDs. As long as the football authorities refuse to do blood testing, refuse to make all players have a biological passport, and take samples sizes so small that they are tantamount to no sample at all, the drugs cheats will continue to have free reign.

UEFA, FIFA, and the various football associations don’t take PED use seriously because just like Major League Baseball, they have a vested interest in a game that is faster, bigger, stronger, and produces more spectacular plays and results.

Hitting 73 home runs is more marketable.



Book review: Inverting the Pyramid

I’m pretty sure the first ever pass in a football match was an accident. Some guy was dribbling toward the opponent’s goal and the ball bounced off him funny and landed at a teammate’s feet. This probably surprised everyone on the pitch and in the resulting confusion over what just happened the teammate scored the first assisted goal. From then on, until the Scots invented the pass and successfully implemented passing football, passing was strictly forbidden.

If you’ve ever watched little kids play football for the very first time then you know that the human instinct is to latch on to the ball and dribble it straight at the opponent. Children have to be taught passing and tactics and until they are, they play bumble ball.

Eventually, some bumble ball team will get a kid who is bigger, stronger, and faster than the other kids and he will run up and down the pitch all day scoring all the goals. The parents will be excited for this kid because this kid is going to be the next “greatest player in English history”.

And of course, there is advanced bumble ball, the modern adult pickup game. I’ve been playing pickup football for 10 years and it is by far the most fun an adult can have playing football, just for the sheer comedic value of the game. Organized men’s games are fine: I played indoor and league football as well. But when it comes to football in its rawest form it’s got to be the pickup game.

There’s no passing, or very little passing anyway. If a team scores a goal off a two pass move, that’s considered a goalasso.
There is no attempt to keep possession or to instill tactics in the squad.

And formations? The formation, is roughly a 2-0-X with X being the number of players left over from the two guys that are relegated to playing defense. Often on my team, I step into the middle and thus we form a 2-1-X formation. It’s a winning formation but it eventually breaks down because one of the two defenders will see me as his opportunity to go forward.

Oh, and in pickup football, no one ever says “I’m going to play midfield” it’s always “do you mind if I go forward?”

In essence, the pickup matches that I play in are much like what Jonathan Wilson, in his book Inverting the Pyramid, tells us that football was like in it’s infancy. That’s where the title of the book comes from, the pyramid was the shape of the early football formations, 2-3-5 and that has been systematically flipped so that teams now often play a 4-5-1. How we got from 2-3-5 to 4-5-1 is the story of the book.

I’ve been writing about English football for 8 years and one of the things that sticks in my craw is how the fans, the managers, and the organizational structure of English Football is mired in tradition. This problem of tradition trumping change is a major sub-theme to this book.

For example, if you’re an Arsenal fan, you know that Herbert Chapman invented the WM formation. The WM was essentially a 3-2-2-3 formation and was invented to counter the 2-3-5 formation that was prevalent at the time. What Chapman did was drop a third center back into the equation. The reason for this was simple, Chapman wanted an extra man in each of the three crucial areas of the pitch: defense, midfield, and attack. Chapman then invited the opposition to attack Arsenal’s defense, funnelling them to the middle, and hit them with quick, precise counter attacks through balls played to either wing.

Chapman modernized football but what followed was what Jimmy Hogan called “the ruination of British football”. The WM formation was easy to replicate in terms of this idea that having an extra defender is a good plan, but the problem is that finding destroyers and people who simply lump the ball forward is much easier than finding finesse players. Chapman revolutionized the game in England but because they didn’t have the players who wanted the ball, English football became defense first football and the long game eventually took over.

Chapman’s innovation took place in 1930. 75 years later, managers like Sam Allardyce are still employed by teams to basically drill their players into playing the degraded version of a 1930s style football. And it’s not just Sam Allardyce. The fans and the media demand that teams play counter-attacking football and any team that deviates from the prescribed 1930s style of football is looked at with great suspicion or disdain.

The clue is in the commentary. People want wide players with “pace”. They want robust central midfielders. They want center backs who get “stuck in” to aerial challenges. The perfect game in England is a basketball style match with players sprinting up and down the pitch at breakneck speed. The perfect game is still the same game as espoused by Charles Reep; don’t make more than 5 passes, get the ball up the pitch quickly, and you will score more goals than teams who hold onto the ball.

Look at the reaction to Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United. Van Gaal might not be everyone’s cup of cocoa but he is one of the managers who revolutionized modern football. His Ajax team won the Champions League and Eredivisie going the entire season unbeaten. They were, perhaps, one of the greatest sides in the history of the sport.

The hallmarks of van Gaal’s style are that his teams play possession-based football. He didn’t invent it, that was actually the Scottish who did that, but he certainly perfected it at Ajax, Barcelona, and now at Man U. It shouldn’t surprise you that wherever van Gaal has gone, he has left behind him a system which blossomed into something much more than the sum of what he added. Van Gaal is trying to drag Man U into the 21st century and they don’t like it.

In the aftermath of Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Man U, The Times reported that several United players openly questioned van Gaal’s tactics. These players (probably Wayne Rooney but he isn’t named) wanted Man U to play counter attacking football against Arsenal. Counter-attacking is a formula that always works against Arsenal, they said.

I’m curious to see what tactic van Gaal adopts against Arsenal when the two teams meet again. He’s a strong-willed man with a history of success at the top level. He also has a history of leaving behind a playing style and improvements to the club’s academy which other managers build on and make the team into a football superpower. But one of the hallmarks of a truly great manager is to adopt the tactics that suit the opponent at the time. So, will he compromise his beliefs and play the Rooney way?

This is another major sub-theme in Wilson’s book, that there are competing styles of play and that they have a long history to back them up. For example, at the same time that England was mired in the WM as a counter attacking plan, the Brazilians were taking that same formation and turning it into some of the most beautiful football ever played. But formations and tactics shouldn’t be confused.

While England is still seemingly mired in a love affair for the long game, the tradition of possession, of the pass and move, and of developing technique over power and pace stretches all the way back to Scotland in the late 19th century. The Scots stunned the English with a display of perfect passing football in 1872. And Scottish football was lauded for its artistic qualities for decades after. It’s almost as if, just at the moment the game was forming there were two different visions of football – the artistic and the pragmatic.

That debate will never subside and is present in nearly every chapter in the book. Every country where football has landed has a manager rise to prominence who wants to create something artistic and beautiful and a manager rise to prominence who simply organizes and systematizes the game. For every Wenger, there is a Bielsa.

As the book winds down Wilson starts to cover tactics a bit and we find out why certain formations were ditched. For example, the 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 that Brendan Rodgers deployed is an old formation designed to stop the 4-4-2 by having three defenders mark two forwards. But when the attackers go to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 the back three is exposed for width and the attacking team gains numerical advantages in midfield and deep in the flanks. And Wilson spends a good deal of time explaining how the false nine works in modern football.

But every aspect of men’s football history is covered in this book and Wilson does a delightful job linking the past to the present. Football has evolved over the years but the large themes of antifootball v. passing football, artistry v. pragmatism, and even organization v. improvisation are all still with us. Managers may tweak a system or change a few things here or there to get the best out of their players but almost without qualification there is almost nothing new under the sun when it comes to football.

If you’re new to the sport, or even if you’re an old hat, you should do yourself a favor and buy this book. If you have a loved one, who likes football, buy this book for Christmas. It’s truly a treasure.


P.S. I want to thank Naveen for buying me this book. My only regret is that this book didn’t exist 15 years ago when I first started following football.

Buy from Amazon USA

Buy from Amazon UK


Sport of today can show us what the world of tomorrow will be like

I have been to London almost every year since 2006. The flight from Seattle is usually uneventful. Since it’s an overnight flight, I take a valium, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up in London at about 11am GMT. But the flights back from London are almost always weird.

In 2010 when I was flying back to the States the USA had instituted a new security measure and everyone had to have their groin checked for explosives. Men in one line, women in the other, everyone was groped, no bombs were found.

This cup-check rule was created because of that guy, the underwear bomber. He was the Al Queda operative who tried to blow his groin up on a flight to Detroit on Christmas day 2009. Because he had worn the same pants for two weeks, and they were so filthy, all he managed to do was to set his own crotch on fire.

I suspect a similar reaction is imminent after it was revealed yesterday that one of the ISIS terrorists had a ticket to the France Germany match and was strapped with explosives. Apparently, the security guards at the gate patted him down and found the bomb. The terrorist then ran away and detonated himself outside the door, killing three people.

The blast was heard inside the stadium. In fact, the French players are seen reacting to the sound of the blast while the match was going on.

Incredibly, they finished the match. And despite the fact that people inside the stadium heard the explosions and probably knew what was going on outside, there was relative calm inside the stadium. When the match ended, fans did go onto the field and there was a general sense that perhaps being in the stadium was safer.

Fans were eventually let out of the stadium and there were some panicked people and there are reports of a crush. I have no reports of any injuries but I have seen video of the fans after the full time whistle. All I see is fear wiping away any other emotions.

The German national team had been the target of a bomb threat at their hotel so they stayed the night inside the stadium and the French team stayed with them in a show of solidarity.

The fact that the bomber was uncovered his should heighten our sense of security. The bomber could have gotten into the stadium, but he didn’t. The security worked. Even with bombs going off on the doorstep, the Stade de France was the safest place in Paris that night.

But just like in the wake of the underwear bomber, security around our matches in Europe is going to get tighter. Euro 2016 is approaching and the matches, with thousands of people going to and from the stadiums, make a ripe target for attacks.

But frankly, I don’t know how they can secure any of this.

I was in the Allianz Arena when some fan set off a flare in the Arsenal section.


That was a Champions League match between two clubs with mostly middle-class fans. Fans who can afford the airfare, hotels, food, beer, and match tickets to fly from London to Munich to watch a dead-rubber match between Arsenal and Bayern Munich. At the time, I remember thinking, “how did they get that flare in here? And what if that wasn’t just a flare but something much more nefarious?”

I’m not trying to be alarmist, nor am I in the grip of terror. My point is rather realistic. There is no way that anyone can ensure 100% safety from people who want to commit evil. And the task ahead for the organizers, the French security apparatus, and anyone else involved in trying to insure fan safety is monumentally huge.

But the organizers have to do it. For us football fans these stadiums and these games are our sanctuaries from the madness spinning around us. The games are a moment to see something beautiful, something transformative, something amazing.

It was less than a month ago that I published a footballistically speaking article which touched on this very subject. That article included this quote from Wenger:

I like a famous line from a great philosopher who said: ‘The only way to deal with death is to transform everything that precedes it into art’. That means we have to make sure that we try to make every day as beautiful as we can.

I know it might sound trite but that is my religion. That quote is on my door at work. I strive to make life as beautiful as I can in this short period that I have left on this planet. I fail all the time, because I’m weak and petty and was raised with the shadow of ugliness all around me. But I try here, with my daughter, with my family, and with my friends. I try. It’s all we can do.

And in his wonderful interview for L’Equipe, Wenger again presaged the way forward “The sport of today can show us what the world of tomorrow will be like. In sport we can share fabulous emotions with people that we can’t even talk to. In normal society that is not yet possible.”

Just like in the wake of the underwear bomber, security has to be tighter for Euro 2016 but they have to host it and I have to support the events in any way that I can. This is a moment for sport to show us all something special. A moment for people who wouldn’t normally even talk to share something beautiful. And that is what I want my world of tomorrow to be like.