How safe are our football stars?
Harare – The suspension of Zimbabwe’s rising football star, Devon Chafa, by FIFA has thrust doping firmly back into the limelight not only in this country but also in a region where thousands of its footballers might unknowingly be walking a tight rope.
The 22-year-old Dynamos midfielder, who won the man-of-the-match award during the 2013 COSAFA Cup final showdown between Zimbabwe and Zambia in Ndola in July despite playing for the losing team, has been tipped for a move to a foreign club at the end of this year after a very impressive domestic season.
But all that could be put on hold in the wake of the provisional 30-day suspension imposed on him by FIFA after the world football governing body formally charged him with violation of their Anti-Doping Regulations.
“The chairman of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee has provisionally suspended a Zimbabwean international footballer for an initial period of 30 days and opened disciplinary proceedings following an adverse analytical finding in relation to a doping control conducted after the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier between Zimbabwe and Egypt played in Harare, Zimbabwe on 9 June 2013,” FIFA said in a statement.
“The decision taken by the chairman of the FIFA Disciplinary Committee was duly notified to the Zimbabwe Football Association on 30 August. The player has until 9 September to inform FIFA whether he wishes to request a hearing.
“Irrespective of whether or not the player requests a hearing, the player and/or the Zimbabwean Football Association have until 16 September to submit a statement and all related and supporting documentary evidence.
“By testing positive for a prohibited substance, the player has contravened Article 63 of the FIFA Disciplinary Code. The decision to provisionally suspend the player was taken in accordance with Articles 38ff of the FIFA Anti-Doping Regulations and Articles 129ff of the FIFA Disciplinary Code.”
Leaked FIFA communications last week revealed that Chafa’s urine samples contained traces of prednisone, a substance that is prohibited by the world football governing body but which can be used by athletes in American’s Major League Baseball.
Chafa claims that he might have taken the substance in medicine prescribed by a doctor, which won’t make him innocent of the charges laid down by FIFA, given that the Zurich organisation expects professional footballers to be fully aware of what they can or cannot take.
The Zimbabwe national team doctor, Nick Munyonga, also confirms that Chafa could have taken the prohibited substance in drugs that were prescribed to him. This, however, means that the risk factor, especially from substances that could be picked from prescribed drugs used as an anti-inflammatory substance to lessen swelling, as has been the case with 14-time All-Star American baseball megastar, Barry Bonds, who routinely used to take prednisone to lessen the swelling in his legs, is widespread for thousands of footballers across the region. Most of the football associations in the region do not have the capacity to conduct regular doping tests on their footballers and the random tests are only done by FIFA, who have the capacity to do so, but with every country playing about three or four FIFA -games per year, it means the majority are those who are not being tested.
The chairman of the Zimbabwe Sports Medicine Association, Edward Chagonda, told The Southern Times what was key was to present a case before FIFA that would convince the Zurich organisation that whatever happened was not meant to enhance performance or gain an unfair advantage over the opponents.
“It’s a bit of a sensitive issue but we have been trying to educate the doctors and medics of the local premiership since the beginning of the year, including holding a course for them in February, where we discussed the need for them to keep their players fully aware of the dangers of the substances that they take, be it in drugs that could be prescribed for certain relief,” said Chagonda.
“We have had a number of footballers who have been randomly tested in the past and they all retained a negative result but the challenge is that we might have many of our footballers who are being exposed to these substances unaware that they are at risk of sanctions in the event that they are picked for a certain test and they fail it.
“I don’t think that this is a case that is only limited, in terms of the threat that it poses to our footballers, to Zimbabwe alone but the risk factor is widespread across the region if we don’t keep hammering the message of the dangers posed by taking prescribed drugs without specialist advice or supervision on what or what not can be taken.”
Crucially, Chagonda points out the fact that Zimbabwe football does not have a history of drug-related problems, which he thinks plays a helping hand when it comes to mitigation, which could help in the player avoiding a lengthy ban and escaping with a warning.
But while Zimbabwean football has been playing it safe, Zimbabwe rugby was rocked last year when three Young Sables players, who took part at the Junior World Rugby Trophy tournament in the United States, failed anti-doping tests during the tournament.
“The Zimbabwe Rugby Union has been informed by the International Rugby Board of adverse analytical findings concerning three Under-20 national team players following anti-doping testing at the recent IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in the USA,” the ZRU said in a statement.
“While it would be inappropriate to comment further while an anti-doping process is underway, the Zimbabwe Rugby Union is totally committed to the IRB’s anti-doping procedures and zero tolerance to drugs in sport.
“We will take the appropriate measures to ascertain what has happened and ensure that players representing Zimbabwe at all levels are competing on an even playing field.”
A year earlier in South Africa, a survey revealed rampant use of anabolic steroids among the country’s schoolboy rugby players.
A tale of Southern African Footballers Who Have Had a brush with Anti-Doping Regulations included former stars like Jerome McCarthy of Manning Rangers in South Africa.
McCarthy, the elder brother of Benni McCarthy tested positive for the stimulant fencamfamine, which can be found in flu medicines. SAFA sent him to do community service as part of a 12-month suspension but the player chose not to comply, forcing FIFA’s intervention and the ban that followed.
In September 2001, Kaizer Chiefs and Zambia striker Rotson Kilambe tested positive to dagga after an African Nations Cup qualifier against Senegal and was provisionally suspended for six months but the ban by FIFA was later lifted after his hearing took long to be held.
Just like Kilambe, Kenyan international Philip Opiyo fell foul of the regulations that prohibit dagga and was sacked by his club, Bush Bucks. Former Kaizer Chiefs player, Arthur Zwane, tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance and was given a two-year ban that was later reduced to a six-month suspension on appeal. He was fined R25 000.