Paul Pogba Doping Ban

This article has been authored by Aniket Rout and Varnika Thadani.

France and Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba has received a four-year suspension for doping after he tested positive for Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) – a banned substance according to the list of prohibited substances published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

This comes after the World Cup winner was provisionally suspended in September 2023 by Italy’s national anti-doping tribunal (NADO Italia) after he tested positive for DHEA. The test was conducted following the 3-0 victory of Juventus in its season opening match against Udinese on 20 August 2023.

The tribunal stated that they found “non-endogenous testosterone metabolites” indicating the presence of DHEA in the sample provided by Pogba. This means that the testosterone metabolites found in his sample could only be found if testosterone was administered from an external source, thus confirming that it was not related to the naturally produced testosterone in the human body.

Reacting to this news, the 30-year-old midfielder denied any wrongdoing. In a statement released shortly after the announcement of his ban, Pogba said that he was “sad, shocked and heartbroken” as everything he had built in his professional career was at risk. “As a professional athlete I would never do anything to enhance my performance by using banned substances and have never disrespected or cheated fellow athletes and supporters of any of the teams I have played for, or against,” he stated.

The ban begins from the date when Pogba first tested positive, which means that the France international is banned till August 2027. He will be 34 years old when the suspension period gets over, thus raising huge question marks regarding his future as a professional footballer.

Understanding the Rules: Anti-Doping Policies in Football

To understand the implications of Pogba’s suspension, it is essential to grasp the doping regulations that govern football.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is an international independent agency established to promote, coordinate, and monitor the fight against doping in sports worldwide. WADA is responsible for developing and implementing the World Anti-Doping Code, which standardises anti-doping policies across all sports and countries.

FIFA, as the ultimate governing body for football, complies with the World-Anti Doping Code developed by WADA. This means that FIFA also publishes its own Anti-Doping Regulations (FIFA ADR), in line with WADA’s standards.

According to the latest list of Prohibited Substances published by WADA, the substances mentioned in the list can be broadly classified into three categories – specified substances, non-specified substances, and substances of abuse.

The former Manchester United midfielder tested positive for DHEA. It is a steroid hormone which increases the testosterone levels in a person’s body and is classified as a non-specified substance under WADA’s Prohibited List. These substances are generally considered to have a higher potential for abuse and performance enhancement and are less likely to be present in common medicines compared to specified substances. Therefore, anti-doping rule violations involving non-specified substances typically carry harsher penalties, in comparison to specified substances and substances of abuse.

Doping Violation Process: From Sample to Suspension

According to the procedure established by WADA, when an athlete submits the sample for a dope test, it is divided into 2 parts, known as ‘A’ and ‘B’ samples. If the ‘A’ sample tests positive for a prohibited substance, the athlete is sent a notification of an Adverse Analytical Finding (AAF). As per Article 7.4.1 of the World Anti-Doping Code 2021, if the prohibited substance found in the sample is not a specified substance, then a provisional suspension shall be imposed on the athlete. This rule led to Pogba’s provisional suspension back in August 2023.

After being notified, the athlete has the right to request the opening and analysis of the ‘B’ sample. If the ‘B’ sample confirms the presence of the prohibited substance, an anti-doping rule violation is established, leading to the imposition of a suspension period on the athlete. In Pogba’s case, the analysis of his ‘B’ sample in October last year confirmed the presence of the same prohibited substances as found in his ‘A’ sample.

As a result of this, NADO Italia proceeded with the hearing and determined a four-year suspension for Paul Pogba, which is the standard suspension period for a case involving a non-specified substance according to Article 20 of the FIFA ADR.

What lies ahead?

After the provisional suspension last year, Pogba had admitted to his club Juventus that he had taken some nutritional supplements without knowing that they contained testosterone, which led to his positive dope test. He revealed that the supplements were prescribed by a friend who is a doctor in Miami and that such supplements are available in the U.S. but not in Italy. He acknowledged his mistake and regretted not informing his club regarding the supplements.

However, Article 6 of the FIFA ADR, which mirrors Article 2 of the World Anti-Doping Code, states the following:

“It is the Player’s personal duty to ensure that no Prohibited Substance enters his body. Players are responsible for any Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers found to be present in their Samples. Accordingly, it is not necessary that intent, Fault, negligence or knowing Use on the Player’s part be demonstrated in order to establish an anti-doping rule violation under art. 6.”

It is quite clear that WADA has a strict liability policy, meaning that the responsibility rests solely on the players to ensure that no prohibited substances enter their bodies. This means that the intent of the player becomes irrelevant and does not need to be proven in order to establish a rule violation. The mere presence of a banned substance is sufficient to trigger sanctions, regardless of how or why it entered the athlete’s system. Therefore, it is not a surprise that Pogba’s story did not make much of a difference during the proceedings and he was given the standard four-year suspension.

Nonetheless, there is still hope. The French midfielder had stated earlier that he will appeal the decision before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the highest authority in the world established to settle sports disputes through arbitration. In order for his appeal to be successful, there are a few potential avenues that could be used by Pogba’s team. Keeping in mind the specifics of his case, there are 2 ways in which the suspension period can be reduced, or even eliminated.

Firstly, Article 22 of the FIFA ADR states that if the player can establish the fact that he bears “No Fault or Negligence”, then the applicable suspension period can be completely eliminated. However, establishing no fault or negligence is extremely challenging, as it requires the player to demonstrate that he did everything possible to avoid ingesting the banned substance and that its presence in their system was not their fault. This includes diligently checking all supplements and medications, consulting with medical professionals, and notifying team doctors of any substances they consume.

An illustrative example can be found in the case of Ukrainian rower Olena Olefirenko at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Olefirenko was given medication by the Ukrainian team doctor and declared it on the Doping Control Form. Despite this, when the substance was found in her sample, she received a ban. When the case arrived at the CAS, the Panel concluded that Olefirenko had relied entirely on the team doctor’s advice and had no intention to enhance her performance artificially. As a result, her suspension was terminated, although the team doctor received a four-year suspension. This is one of the exceptionally rare cases where an athlete has been successful in establishing “No Fault or Negligence”. This underscores how difficult it is to prove “No Fault or Negligence” since athletes must show they took all the precautions that could be possibly taken.

Since Pogba’s defence was that a doctor friend advised him to take the supplement, questions will be rightfully asked of the player as to why he did not personally check the composition and ensure that the supplement did not contain any prohibited substances. Further questions might also be asked regarding his decision to not disclose the fact that he took an unauthorised supplement to the club doctors. Therefore, the chances of his ban getting completely terminated under Article 22 of the FIFA ADR are highly unlikely, since he is guilty of not taking the utmost precautions expected from an athlete.

Secondly, Article 23(2) of the FIFA ADR states that if the player can establish that he bears “No Significant Fault or Negligence” in a case involving a non-specified substance, then the ban period may be reduced, provided that the reduced period of suspension may not be less than one half of the original period of suspension. Thus, if Pogba is successful in establishing that he bore no significant fault or negligence, his doping ban can be reduced to a two-year ban at best, subject to further reductions as per Article 24.

As the term suggests, it is more lenient than the “No Fault or Negligence” standard, acknowledging that while the athlete is somewhat at fault, their actions were not grossly negligent. A few football players have been successful in getting their suspension period reduced by establishing no significant fault or negligence.

One of the most recent examples can be the case of Cameroon and Manchester United goalkeeper Andre Onana, who had received a twelve-month suspension in February 2021 after he tested positive for furosemide, a specified substance. However, during the appeal proceedings at the CAS, he explained that he had accidentally ingested a pill containing the substance, when he mistook his wife’s medication for aspirin. He explained further that the blister packs and the pills looked the same – little white circles, barely 6mm in diameter. The CAS panel considered his submissions and reached a decision to partially reduce his suspension period from twelve months to nine months. It did not accept the goalkeeper’s request to remove the suspension entirely as there was some fault on behalf of the player, albeit not significant.

High-Profile Doping Bans in Football History

Pep Guardiola:

Pep Guardiola, the now-legendary coach, experienced a significant doping scandal during his short stint in Serie A with Brescia. In November 2001, Guardiola tested positive for nandrolone twice, following matches against Piacenza and Lazio. Despite his confidence in his innocence, he received a four-month ban in January 2002, with a mitigating factor being his alleged unawareness of taking the banned substance. Years later, in 2009, Guardiola was acquitted of all charges, and his €50,000 fine was overturned. This was possible since the concept of strict liability had not been adopted by WADA back then.

Fernando Couto:

Portuguese defender Fernando Couto, while playing for Lazio, tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone and was initially handed a 10-month ban in April 2001. However, the Italian Football Federation (FIGC) later reduced his suspension to four months. Despite the reduction, Couto was required to pay a 100 million lira fine. The reduction allowed him to return to Lazio’s starting lineup immediately, as the bans were backdated to the start of the suspension period.

Jaap Stam:

Dutch international Jaap Stam, playing for Lazio, tested positive for nandrolone following a match against Atalanta on 13 October 2001, shortly after his transfer from Manchester United. Initially suspended for five months and fined €66,000, Stam’s ban was later reduced to four months by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), which allowed him to return to action from March 2002.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the four-year suspension imposed on Paul Pogba for testing positive for a banned substance presents a significant setback in his career, there are still legal avenues available for potential reduction of his ban. The appeal to CAS will be a critical juncture in Pogba’s case. Historical precedents, such as the reduced bans for other athletes who have successfully established no significant fault or negligence, provide a glimmer of hope. Ultimately, the outcome will depend on the strength of the evidence and the legal arguments presented by his counsel. The football world will be closely watching the proceedings, as the decision will not only impact Pogba’s future but also set a precedent for similar cases in the sport.

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