If you’re a real fútbol fan, the happiest month of the past four years (and our lives) just came to an end. France beat Croatia 4-2 the morning of July 15 to become the No. 1 soccer team in the world. But this World Cup had character that separates it from the past four or five world tournaments. I mean, given the world’s political landscape, the fact it was held in Russia made it inherently charged. Then add the fact Germany didn’t make it past the first round; Russia—a team ranked No. 72 in the world—knocked Spain out of the tournament and made it to the quarter-finals; Lionel Messi didn’t get an opportunity to dazzle us into oblivion; England didn’t choke until the semi-finals; Vladimir Putin showed up to the games; and Neymar Jr. took the crown from Cristiano Ronaldo as the flop-for-a-foul master of the world.
So, yeah, the World Cup was fiery from day one. The biggest rumor of the tournament, though, revolved around team Russia’s usage of performance-enhancing drugs. This shouldn’t be a surprise considering the majority of Russia’s Olympic team was banned from competing in the 2018 winter games (which were also held in Russia!) because of doping. So, based on that logic, why the hell would the men’s soccer team be any different?
We did a little digging to see what we could turn up. Russia never really competed on the world stage in soccer because Putin didn’t take an interest in the sport until 2010, which happens to be the year FIFA—the Switzerland-based nonprofit that oversees all of world soccer—determined the 2018 World Cup would be held in Russia.
But no one expected the Russians to host the tournament. In fact, the favored pick was England, which hasn’t hosted the Cup since 1966. The British government chipped in £2.1 million, and international celebrities including Prince William, David Beckham and then-prime minister David Cameron promoted the effort. An essay written by Ken Bensinger, a New York Times and BuzzFeed contributor who has written extensively about the FIFA scandal and the organization’s blatant corruption, outlines this whole issue, more than suggesting Russia stole this World Cup from England. (We highly recommend reading the excerpt from his book Red Card, also published in The New York Times.)
Again, this isn’t surprising given that Russia has a tendency to meddle in elections and is somehow directly or indirectly involved in just about every political conspiracy across the globe. Again, Russia was ranked No. 72 in the world: The team has no star players, lacks an organized midfield and defense, and doesn’t have a stellar scorer or a well-regarded coach. The Russian squad didn’t even qualify for the 2017 World Cup in South Africa and hasn’t had any notable successes in the sport since 2008. The only reason it qualified for this World Cup is because host nations get an automatic spot in the tournament.
And this is where the doping rumors come in. According to a report by the U.K. newspaper The Independent, Russian doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov said he recognized a player from the Russian World Cup team from his own doping program. For background, Rodchenkov ran the Russian doping program and was the director of the national anti-doping laboratory. His job was to cover up positive tests. He then turned whistleblower and is now in witness protection in the United States.
At the end of May, Rodchenkov spoke at the Sports, Politics and Integrity conference in London via video chat from a secret location in the U.S., hiding his face with a balaclava because there is a “great threat” to his life. Although he admitted there’s almost no comparison between the doping that happens in Russian weightlifting and Olympic athletics versus soccer, he said he was aware of “34 doping footballers whose positive tests were covered up from his time administering performance-enhancing drugs in Russia.” Many of these cases, he explained, were dropped without investigation. He didn’t specify what name he recognized, however.
The Independent reports that Rodchenkov said his former boss, Vitaly Mutko, the onetime Russian sports minister and head of the Russian Football Union, told him “not to touch” soccer players and to make sure none was ever punished for doping and ensure there was “no noise,” especially regarding the national team. Rodchenkov said that most doping for footballers involved corticosteroids.
WebMD defines these steroids as “powerful drugs that tame inflammation”; they help with soreness and recovery time, allowing people to work out harder for longer, ultimately requiring shorter periods to recoup muscle strength. Additionally, the website says corticosteroids are “different from ‘anabolic’ steroids that build up muscles,” which makes sense because none of the Russian players resembles the Hulk.
What’s hilarious is FIFA conducted an investigation into the Russian World Cup team, according to reports by The Independent and ESPN, and found there was no evidence of wrongdoing or use of performance-enhancing drugs. But who the fuck trusts an organization such as FIFA, which is solely motivated by money, to tell the truth about Russian doping, especially during a time when people are getting poisoned by nerve agents on their door handles (likely) by the Russians? HELLO! No one in their right mind, including FIFA officials, is going to do anything to personally piss off Putin or Russia—which is exactly why Rodchenkov is in the witness-protection program.
Do we have solid evidence of Russian doping? No—because it’s likely being covered up. But one thing’s certain: When you or your country is involved in a consistent collection of lies, conspiracies, scandals and trouble, you’re likely guilty. And unfortunately, FIFA, the governing body that we should be able to depend on to hold athletes accountable, is equally as corrupt as Putin and President Donald Trump. So, unless someone conducts a secret investigation or another whistleblower like Rodchenkov emerges from Russia, the world will never know for sure. It’s also likely doping will be prevalent in Russian soccer going forward—just as it is in every other sport in that country.