Doping in soccer | The shadow of doping reappears in Italy: “We never knew what we were drinking”

On January 6, the Italian soccer player Gianluca Vialli died at the age of 58 in a London hospital due to pancreatic cancer that he had been diagnosed with in 2017. A few days earlier, on December 16, the Serbian player Sinisa Mihajlovicwho had played in several transalpine clubs, died at the age of 53 due to leukemia with which he had been fighting since July 2019. Two apparently isolated deaths that have nothing to do with each other.

However, following the death of the former striker for Cremonese, Sampdoria, Juventus and Chelsea, some palabras by Dino Baggio reopened a cursed topic in Italian football, that of the consequences of drug abuse that was never classified as doping. Baggio’s words put the focus back on calcium: “I’m scared for myself, things are happening to too many footballers: illnesses, deaths… We did not drink strange things, they were normal things. But you have to see if, over time, the body knows how to expel them or if they stay inside you. Many also spoke of the grass in the fields, of its products… Luca left our lives too soon. It would be necessary to investigate the substances and supplements that we took at that time. It certainly wasn’t doping because anti-doping never sanctioned me. But they were drugs, which are different things from the substances that are used today.”

Days later, the Romanian Florin Raducioiu, former player, among others, of Bari, Verona, Brescia and Milan, as well as Espanyol, admitted in an interview with Sport Report, having consumed substances and medications at the same time: “They gave us a dropper with a pink liquid. I also took some medicines. I will call the doctor who was taking us in Brescia to understand more about the medicines I took in Milan, Brescia or Verona. We didn’t know what we were getting. They always told us that it was vitamins, glucose. They always gave us the dropper with the pink liquid on the eve of the matches. I remember perfectly. In Milan we took other things, it was more a matter of pills.”

Walter Sabatini, a player in the 1980s and sports director at various clubs later, has joined this current of opinion: “The suspicions are consistent and even justifiable. When I was 20 years old, doctors gave injections and we didn’t know what they injected us with. They punctually gave me two injections before each game without ever asking a question. We never knew what we were drinking.”

This debate uncovers doubts about the massive use of drugs in Italian football for decades. Filippo Ricci, correspondent for La Gazzetta dello Sport in Madrid, warns that “Dino Baggio’s words after the deaths of Mihajlovic and Vialli have reopened this issue, which has always generated a lot of concern in Italy. Since the Guariniello investigation or the cases of ELA at Fiorentina, is a subject with which there is a special sensitivity in Italy”.

Guariniello investigates

In November 2002, the premature death of former soccer player Gianluca Signorini at the age of 42 set off alarm bells. The cause of death was a degenerative disease, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), also known as Gehrig’s disease. It aroused suspicions that led to the opening of an investigation by the Turin prosecutor Raffaele Guariniello, encouraged by the protests of the widows of some previously deceased former soccer players. The prosecutor opened a case that was baptized as “Las Viudas del Calcio” about the premature death of Italian soccer players in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The data collected was devastating: between 1960 and 1996 at least 400 soccer players from Series A and B died, 70 of these deaths from three diseases: cancer, leukemia and ALS. The last one was especially striking, because Gehrig’s disease only affects 0.01% of the population. However, among the footballers of those decades it shot up to 2.7%.

The most paradigmatic case was that of Fiorentina, where up to four players from the 70s died (Beatrice, Longoni, Saltutti and Ferrante) and five more footballers presented rare diseases. Pino Longoni’s widow slipped that the death of her husband and her companions was linked to doping. Longoni, a Fiorentina player from 1969 to 1970, died at the age of 63 from a degenerative disease that narrowed the arteries in his brain. Beatrice died of leukemia at 39 in 1987, Saltutti of a heart attack at 56 in 2003, and Ferrante of tonsil cancer at 59 in 2004.

Fiorentina doctors acknowledged having medicated their players with ‘Corteza’ to stimulate the production of hormones and increase muscle mass, and with ‘Micoren’, a heart tonic that increases resistance to fatigue. Fabio Capello himself has publicly admitted that they consumed the latter: “We all drank ‘Micoren’, even in the national team. But then it was not classified as doping.” Today they are both doping substances. Prosecutor Guariniello’s investigation was finally closed denouncing “an excessive use of medicines”, but it could never be directly related to the practice of doping.

Asked about the subject the current selector, Robert Mancini, who lived through those years as a player, limited himself to answering: “The latest statements about football and the health of the players? I have no idea, you have to tread carefully on this issue. You have to be careful what you say.”

A caution that explains, as Ricci points out, that “despite being a concern that worries Italian society, not only the calcium environment, the debate behind Dino Baggio’s words has lasted barely three days on the front pages of the media. It has been closed quickly and has not been talked about again. It is painful to speak out because everyone knew Mihajlovic and Vialli, and also a firm conclusion has never been reached, even though the number of deaths is there. Behind all this emerges the question that all of Italy is asking, Was it necessary to fill young boys with outstanding physical condition with drugs to improve their resistance? Silence reverberates again in the Italian calcium when the shadow of doping hovers around the death of two other footballers.



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