Football and drugs part two

The Telegraph today published a revealing interview with the former Southampton and Norway defender Claus Lundekvam, who talks about how he depended on alcohol and cocaine to replace the adrenaline rush of playing football once he’d retired.

That chain of events took him to some dark places – a heart attack, drug overdoses and a long road to recovery. Now 45, he is working to help others with drug, alcohol and mental health problems. The interview, by Jeremy Wilson, is well worth a read.

But the thing that jumped out at me was a good two-thirds of the way down the article. ‘He seldom played injury-free,’ writes Wilson of Lundekvam, before Lundekvam says: ‘I was using quite a lot of painkillers and cortisone in some parts of the body to numb the pain. A normal week was being exposed to opioids and pain-killers. It was to perform in training and to be ready for the game. I didn’t think much of it. I was young, quite naïve. For me it turned out badly. I built a tolerance and acceptance for opioids and painkillers.’

I wrote a month or so ago about how reluctant the sport is to have a conversation about the way players are prepared so they can step onto the pitch and get through 90 minutes, especially considering the way drug-taking is covered and perceived in other sports. Football, it seems, gets a free pass. In cycling, operating in the grey areas between legal and illegal medication is seen as simply the last step before the rules are inevitably broken – and with good historical reason, I should say. In football, the attitude seems to be, if it’s not banned what’s the problem. It is an article of faith that no one would cross the line, despite the clear abuse of legal (but nevertheless dubious) substances to the detriment of the individual’s long-term health.

Stories like Lundekvam’s tale come round every now and then and it’s impossible not to feel for the depths of despair.

But it seems to me that the emotive aspects of the story, the dramatic spiralling out of control, the emptiness, the excess, is used as a masking agent for a bigger issue. Focus on the cocaine and booze benders, don’t look at the journey that led there.

Football subscribes to the ‘bad apple’ theory. I am not describing Lundekvam as a bad apple, here, to be clear. But a case presented in isolation is seen as just that. There doesn’t seem to be an appetite for the follow-up.

Among Lundekvam’s team-mates at Southampton were Mark Hughes, the current Saints manager, and Matt Le Tissier, a pundit on Sky’s football coverage.

I wonder if questions will be directed towards either of them this weekend. In his press conference before Southampton’s FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea, will Hughes be asked if he knew Lundekvam was given cortisone as a matter of routine? Were painkillers given to other players? What were Hughes’s experiences? Is cortisone still a drug that is given to footballers? Which players have been treated this week, and with what? Can we see some paperwork to show the medical need? What protocols are in place to ensure the drug isn’t abused? And where does the medical treatment at football clubs end, who draws the line and where precisely is that line?

That is what would happen in cycling, and you’d possibly think that the journalists who cover both sports would be leading the questioning because, whenever I hear the line relating to cycling, ‘We’ve seen this movie before,’ I wonder why people don’t notice the similar plot points in football.

Perhaps it’s because people assume that drugs can’t help all that much in a skill-based sport. I hear this all the time too – ‘You could give me every drug under the sun and I’d not be as good as Lionel Messi.’

Of course that is true, but it also misses the point by a country mile. If a player cannot run without a substance but then can get through 90 minutes is that performance-enhancing or merely levelling the playing field?

The nature of professional sport is to fix people up and get them on the pitch or the start line. The importance of their physical welfare in the present far outweighs the importance of their physical and mental welfare in the future. Once they’re off the wage bill they’re more or less on their own.

The football media operates in the present too. Today’s press conferences will all be about Arsène Wenger leaving Arsenal at the end of the season, and understandably so, it's a big story.

But football news is ubiquitous and when there isn’t any a story will be generated by someone saying something. A feature writer will have the opportunity to tell the story of the next Claus Lundekvam at some point in the near future and in the meantime everyone can carry on looking the other way.