It was inevitable and correct that questions were asked about Russia’s performances against Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Certainly up in the Luzhniki commentary box I expressed surprise and delight that the home players put in a good shift, albeit against a physically inferior side fasting for Ramadan.
Against Egypt it was clear that Mo Salah should not even be on the bench let alone pitch. It was on his normally reliable rock that the Pharaoh’s attacks foundered.
However the English media didn’t let facts get in the way of another kick at Russia. Yet both they, and their opponents today, have a lot more to answer than they care to address.
The Russia Syndrome
When on the run criminal ‘Dr. Death’ Rodchenkov stated that he recognises one name on the 2018 Russian team he’d “a problem with” it should be remarkable. Except the player, Kambolov, wasn’t going to the World Cup. How does a man so in fear of his life appear so often, this time in a balaclava, for a conference?
More so that his appearance fee is never south of $100,000. Interestingly, what is left out of the ABC article is that Dr. Death expected the World Cup to be clean.
As I mentioned at the top, it’s right to question improved performances. To look at facts, understand the game and then dig deeper. In the opener the Saudi’s had 59% possession and made Russia run. Had Saudi picked the right passes Russia were there for the taking.
As they later showed, when Ramadan fasting had ended, the Saudi’s were a match for Egypt. Poor teams chase the ball more to make up for their lack of quality or technique. It didn’t matter to paid for investigators with the English Mail newspaper who continued their dot joining and outrage apace.
The same author, and his former partner who is now heading up the Guardian’s efforts, ignored information that Dr. Death, Gregory Rodchenkov, was behind a criminal enterprise responsible for deaths of Russian sportspeople.
Instead they just continued their efforts to bring football home. Since then the English media has fallen over themselves to praise a man I’d met twice and investigated thoroughly. However the truth was less interesting than a bait for clicks. Bad Russia sells.
FIFA rejected the concerted English media attack but it was never going to be enough. It inspired further pieces of nonsense and crayon journalism, including one which belittled South Korea as a football team, until you realised it was a click bait article paid for by a betting company to entice fools to part with their cash.
And yet, in all the noise, there was a deep feeling that the English media perform this bait and switch for a reason. They and their Belgian opponents were happy publish the paid for attack ads.
Belgium’s marginal gains
When Het Nieuwsblad conducted an anonymous poll amongst 100 footballers in the Belgian top flight, one in four knew about doping taking place amongst them.
Five years on and a Belgian-based Ghanaian International, Bennard Kumordzi, gets a doping ban. His club KV Kortrijk didn’t cancel his contract, saying he’ll be of value when he returns.
In football, 20-year-old Sven Verdonck was done for Stanozolol, that drug Ben Johnson was caught with. In 2016 Belgium made the top five in doping bans (73), pushing Russia down to sixth place. Not bad for a wee nation hemmed in on the coast by three more illustrious neighbours, and France (second with 76 cases).
However Belgian footballers may count themselves very lucky that they aren’t racing pigeons. When samples from 20 Belgian birds (who’d been tested in Belgium) were sent to South Africa, it turned out that six of them had been given cocaine and painkillers to enhance performance. Either that or the lyrics to Blur’s ‘Parklife’ have a far deeper meaning.
The doggedness with which some English journalists have been paid to continue following the doping angle in Russia is admirable.
It is also disappointing as so much of that largesse could have been saved had they simply begun throwing stones in their own glasshouses. Dr Mark Bonar, England’s very own Dr. Death, was struck off the medical register this past March.
Whatever became of the list handed over to UKAD? Those Premier League players that apparently availed of his services, at least three of those implicated will be in the England squad today.
With Hull City in the Premier League, Matty Fryatt was tested just once – and a total of five times in his 15 year career. Which is good going considering one-quarter of English Premier League players were untested this past season.
Matty points out that there is “no pill for skill”. Something Gary Lineker and co agree with. Sixteen years ago Dr. Michel D’Hooghe accused some of England’s biggest stars of being drug cheats. Gordon Taylor, then head of the PFA, agreed. So why the lack of testing? Or lack of information on failed tests.
Last year it was revealed that the English FA covered up 13 failed drugs tests before Saido Berahino’s indiscretion slipped out. A year earlier and the excellent Peter Staunton believed that football was one smoking gun away from a disaster.
Unfair or despair?
Well before the Mail were on their high horses, I’d been talking and writing about drugs in Russian sports in these very pages. For years I’d been trying to get authorities to do something as, then, I was working with athletes and wanted them to compete on a level playing field.
Later on I wrote about footballers dropping dead on the field. It was a great topic to discuss with fellow journos, but not a single one wanted to do anything with the material I passed them on. From the Guardian, the Mail, the Sun, the Irish Independent, CNN, Sky, Russia Today. It wasn’t interesting.
One English news agency offered to buy everything from me so long as I signed an Non-Disclosure Agreement and not reproduce anything from my work that could be linked to what I would hand over.
Oddly, the agency has commissioned certain journalists to produce hit pieces (not alone on Russia). I declined. It’s unfair but I don’t despair. Because today England play Belgium. It’s going to be a cracker and I’ve been tipping England to make the semi-finals and Belgium to win.
I look at Gareth Southgate and his intelligent rebuttal of insane attempts by English media to create headlines. Boycott the World Cup Sir? Gareth has the character and courage to remind the assembled hacks that his job is to make England great again. Media attempts to disrupt his preparations? He turns the focus onto football. He has a likable team and a winning mentality. And they play lovely football too. Lots of running, energy and focus. And then I look at his backroom team.
A legacy from ‘Big Sam’ looms large. The former lead Doctor for UK Athletics, who oversaw the best of the best like Mo Farah, when he wasn’t with Alberto Salazar in Oregon or Jama Aden in France/Spain. Rob Chakraverty was named in the DCMS Select Committee report on doping in British sports. He is under investigation by the General Medical Council (who struck off Dr Mark Bonar).
Rob gave Mo Farah an injection(s) of l-carnitine to ‘help performance’ in April 2014 just before his London marathon debut. He then promptly ‘forgot’ to record it. When questioned over the ethics of using such potentially dangerous substances the good Doctor had a simple reply:
We have a support system for all of our athletes, particularly our top athletes, that gives them an advantage. I don’t think we should necessarily apologise for that. I think it’s something that is brilliant about sport in the UK.
His former Boss at UK Athletics, Ed Warner, slammed Dr Rob:
If my child went to see the GP and he or she failed to record something on their records, it would be as inexcusable as not recording something on Mo Farah’s records.”
Though he was keen to say it was wrong to “tar us with the same brush as cycling.
Indeed. And while the English FA refused to comment, Dr Rob’s job as ‘lead men’s performance doctor’ for Team England was not in doubt. He didn’t know how many doses he’d injected, hadn’t recorded them, but assured the Commons committee that it was legal.
As we watch tonight, let us all hope that no English player needs urgent medical treatment. Or that the good Doctor has remembered what he’s giving the athletes under his supervision. As for Gareth, I still like him, but lie down with dogs and you only end up with fleas.