Doping ban for 15-year-old PL academy player raises truly worrying questionsOliver Kay Feb 26, 2021
It is not easy to know where to start when it comes to the 21-page document the FA published this week, laying out the reasons why a teenager at a Premier League academy has been banned for nine months for a doping violation.
It is the troubling story of a player who, in a bag in a fridge at his digs, kept a pen-type dispenser containing Somatropin, a growth hormone that is banned under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) regulations. He was found not guilty of having used the banned substance, but being in possession of it — even without any apparent intention to use it — was a serious violation.
One of several explanations offered in his defence was that an unnamed witness had bought the substance in a car park from a friend, who had obtained it in Turkey, and that it had somehow ended up in the player’s possession after he picked up the wrong orange bag when visiting home one weekend. An earlier explanation, that the substance belonged to his cousin, was found to be untrue.
At one point, the commission, chaired by David Casement QC, expressed “great concern” that the player had not received any anti-doping education. Then again, at the time of the discovery, the player had only just turned 15.
He is 16 now — still young enough for his identity, as well as his club’s, to be kept confidential by the FA — and he is already almost seven months into a nine-month suspension from all football activity. It remains to be seen what impact the ban, at a critical stage of his development, will have on his future prospects. But certainly, the episode will raise questions about anti-doping education in football and, more broadly, about the dangers of a young boy being uprooted from his family at such a young age to chase the dream of becoming a Premier League footballer.
On September 30, 2019, at the age of 15, the boy left home and moved in with a host family who provide living accommodation on behalf of the club for those youngsters who live too far away to commute daily. As well as attending training sessions at the club’s academy, the boy attended a local school. He was free to visit his family at weekends.
His landlady told the commission that the day after he moved in, she noticed a pen-type dispenser in a bag he had brought with him that had been placed in the fridge. At that stage, it had a cap on the top. She assumed it was for taking some kind of medication which she had not been told about.
She said she saw the dispenser on various other occasions over the next few months. At other times she picked up caps, which were for use with the pen, from the boy’s bedroom floor. According to the FA regulatory commission, “she did not know that they contained needles. She assumed the medication in the pen was to be taken orally.” The landlady says she got into the habit of picking up the caps and throwing them away.
On December 11, 2019, when she was visited at home by club representatives, the landlady made a passing reference to the player’s medication, which she said neither his family nor the club had made her aware of prior to his arrival more than two months earlier.
This prompted raised eyebrows and an immediate inspection of his bedroom — and specifically the dispenser. The boy was interviewed as a matter of urgency, as were his parents, and the next day he was asked by the club’s academy staff to return to his family home pending a full investigation.
The club passed the matter on to the FA, who interviewed him last March and then, the next day, sent an email to his parents and solicitor asking him to provide his mobile phone as part of their investigation into a suspected doping violation. The boy said he did not receive the email request to hand over his phone, which was stolen from a vehicle two days later.
Talk of growth hormones in football inevitably brings up the name of Lionel Messi, who underwent such therapy while growing up. “I injected my legs once every night,” the Barcelona and Argentina forward told America TV in 2018. “At first my parents gave me the injections from when I was eight years old until I learnt. I started (injecting himself) at 12 years old. It was a small needle. It did not hurt. It was something routine for me that I had to do. I did it with normality.”
Diego Schwarzstein, the doctor who prescribed the treatment, told The Times in 2013 that Messi “had a hormone deficiency and it was a problem that could not be overcome without drugs. The drugs were not a problem. It was just like a diabetic giving himself daily doses of insulin.”
One of the few things accepted by all parties at this FA regulatory commission hearing was that the dispenser in the bag in the boy’s fridge had contained Somatropin, which, according to the website of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, is most commonly injected for the treatment of growth hormone deficiency. Although not mentioned specifically, Somatropin is classified under item S2 (“peptide hormones, growth factors, related substances and mimetics) in the 2019 WADA list of banned substances.
There is something deeply concerning about the thought of a 15-year-old footballer, living away from home, possibly feeling he needs to inject himself with a banned substance to give himself the best opportunity of developing the physique that he believes will help him make the grade to earn a scholarship at the age of 16.
Such a scenario is ruled out in the FA commission’s written reasons, though. While the FA contended at the hearing that the offence was intentional — that he “used the prohibited substance” and “knowingly had it in his possession for an extended period, namely from October 1 to December 11” — the commission rejected that charge, accepting the player’s claim that he had never taken Somatropin. There was no medical evidence to support the FA’s case on use and no witness saw him inject himself or mention doing so.
On top of that, there was no hint of clandestine behaviour. “He made no attempt to hide the pen or the needles which, with caps in place, were left on the floor for (his landlady) to pick up,” the commission wrote. “There was no indication in the evidence that (he) was ever evasive with (his landlady) about the pen or the needles. Had he known that what he was doing was — or might run the risk of being — a breach of the rules, his behaviour would likely have been very different.”
Merely by being in possession of Somatropin, though, he was in breach of anti-doping regulations. Whereas Messi was prescribed a growth-hormone treatment for medical purposes, the unidentified academy player did not hold a therapeutic-use exemption for Somatropin. According to the FA commission, “there was no other acceptable justification for him being in possession of it”.
The boy’s explanation is that he only became aware of the dispenser and caps in his orange bag the day before they were brought to the club’s attention by his landlady. At that point, he said he called his mother to ask what they were — and, following her advice, he immediately threw them away.
There is, though, a tangled web of fabrications and contradictions from the boy and his parents, whose explanations evolved over the course of the investigation and subsequent disciplinary process. The commission gave him the benefit of the doubt over his claims that he only used the needles to get his SIM card out of his phone. Other claims, including one about him returning from his family home in December 2019 with (fatefully) the wrong orange bag prior to its discovery by his landlady, were rejected out of hand by the commission as well as by the FA’s investigating team.
The FA claimed that both the player and his parents lied to them — and previously to his club — during interviews. When they were first asked about the substance that was found in his bag on December 11, they said it belonged to his cousin and that he had taken it back to digs by mistake after picking up the wrong orange bag. Subsequently, his parents claimed the pen-type dispenser belonged to the father and that they had made up the “wrong bag” story to “save embarrassment about using human growth hormone to treat his depression”.
On top of that, there is the testimony of another witness — unnamed — who claimed to have bought the substance in the first place.“The refusal (…) to provide details of who supplied the prohibited substance is relied upon by the FA as undermining his credibility and the account of events now put forward on (his) behalf,” the commission wrote. “(The witness) was only prepared to say he bought it from a friend in a car park and that the friend had obtained it legally in Turkey. Even at a contested hearing he was not prepared to be fully open and transparent about details surrounding the pen.”
The parents are criticised repeatedly in the commission’s report for supplying false — and contradictory — information. The boy at least is presumed to have been acting in good faith when he relayed his parents’ inaccurate story about his cousin. The commission acknowledges that “as a minor with his first experience of disciplinary proceedings, it is understandable that he was afraid, extremely nervous and that remembering dates and periods of time going back a number of months would be difficult”.
But the commission agreed with the boy’s legal team that it would have been “surprising” if his landlady had gone two and a half months without mentioning an apparent medication — which she had not been informed about beforehand — to the club or to his parents. This is one factor that led the commission to accept his claim that had not been in possession of Somatropin for the two-and-a-half-month period she suggested, though he is assumed to have had it “for at least a period of several weeks”.
“The presence of the caps on the floor is highly suspicious,” the commission wrote. “However, the player has demonstrated that there is an alternative use for those caps and the needles inside — namely to access his SIM card. In the context of a 15-year-old who has demonstrated how he used the needles to open his phone SIM card, that explanation cannot simply be dismissed.”
Under the terms of the FA anti-doping regulations, the starting point for such a violation is usually a four-year ban from all football activity. In cases where a player can prove, on the balance of probabilities, that his actions were not intentional, the starting point might be reduced to two years — and that if certain mitigating factors can be applied, reducing the “degree of fault”, the sanction might be reduced further.
The FA initially pushed for the player to be banned for four years, arguing there was no basis for a reduced sanction. But their case was undermined by a new WADA code which came into force on January 1 this year, proposing more lenient sanctions in cases involving minors and non-professional athletes where no significant fault or negligence is found. For such offences, a two-year ban is stated as a maximum sanction.
Ultimately, the FA regulatory commission took the view that this was “a 15-year-old with no anti-doping education at all” and that the substance, dispenser and needles had been “placed into his possession by someone”. They found that he did not use the substance and that “he used the needles for a purpose related to his phone, but not to inject himself”.
By accepting his claim that he did not use, intend to use or even know about the banned substance, the commission agreed that his degree of fault — along with his age and his lack of education on doping matters — meant a reduced ban was appropriate. For the possession offence, he was banned for nine months, which was backdated to last August. There was an additional three-match ban for his failure to comply with the FA’s request to hand over his phone, but the commission ruled that this three-month suspension should run concurrently with the nine-month ban. The ban will end on May 7.
Judging by the strength of the FA’s desire to push for a much heavier sanction, there will be concern and frustration that an opportunity has been missed when it has come to handing out a powerful anti-doping message.
But what really sticks out in this case is how a) a 15-year-old boy seemed oblivious to anti-doping regulations, b) his landlady saw no cause for suspicion and c) the club was unaware until she mentioned it in passing some time after — she said two and a half months, he said a matter of days — he first took that dispenser into her home.
“The commission expresses its great concern that no anti-doping education was given to the player in this case,” said the report. “There was some suggestion during the evidence that a difference is made between young players who are scholars (those who enter full-time contacts from the age of 16) and those who are not. The former receive anti-doping education as a matter of course and the latter may not receive any. If that is the case, it represents a major failing in the system and needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency.”
The truth of this case is not easy to establish, but on that point, surely every player, every parent, every host family and every academy manager can agree. If a player has somehow ended up in possession of a banned substance he knows nothing about, then yes he is right to consult his parents, but he and they should know to bring it to the attention of someone at the club’s academy. Had he raised the concern himself — rather than leaving it to his landlady to bring up the subject of his “medication” when visited by two members of the academy staff — it seems reasonable to assume his case would have been looked upon more sympathetically.
But it is partly due to the boy’s lack of education on doping matters that the ban was reduced to nine months. A picture is painted of “a 15-year-old with no anti-doping education at all”. And that raises questions not only about the lack of doping education for players before they reach scholarship age but also about a boy of that age — he had “only just turned 15”, according to the report — being uprooted from his family home to pursue a career which would be precarious enough even without an episode such as this occurring.
And then there is the thought, in no way encouraged by the commission’s report into this case, that there might be a young aspiring footballer who is so desperate to make the grade, perhaps away from home, acutely aware of how life-changing it might be to his family if he can get a professional contract, that he resorts to desperate measures. That a player might take possession of a banned growth hormone and use those needles. Not to get his SIM card out of his phone, as this boy was found to have done — but for different means.
“One question is how it could get to the point where someone of a young age could get access to a substance like that,” says Dr Paul Dimeo of Stirling University, author of The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport: Causes, Consequences, Solutions. “When it’s an accidental case, that’s different. But the concern would be that it’s difficult to put into place a wide-scale educational process for athletes of that age, simply because there are so many of them, which means there is definitely a gap in the system. And if young athletes are under a great amount of pressure, they could go searching around for different answers.”
The commission concluded this was not the case here, but it demonstrates just how easily a banned substance can fall into the wrong hands. And if academies are not educating young boys and girls about the dangers of unfamiliar substances — not just in terms of their career, but in terms of their health — then they really should be.
“It doesn’t have to be labelled anti-doping education,” Dr Dimeo says. “It’s more likely young athletes will show more interest if the conversations they have are about nutrition and the need to look after themselves and put the right things into the body. That includes being aware that there are different ways in which you can trip up, simply by being in possession of someone else’s things.”
If those children are considered old enough to be taken away from their families shortly after their 15th birthday, they are more than old enough to know about doping and how it destroys, rather than enhances, careers.