What is doping? History of suspensions and protocols explained after Paul Pogba ban

  • Doping is illegal in football and throughout the wider sporting world
  • Diego Maradona, Paul Pogba and Rio Ferdinand among stars to have been hit with sanctions
  • FIFA and UEFA have lengthy protocols to deter players from cheating for an advantage

Pogba has been banned for four years
Pogba has been banned for four years / Insidefoto/GettyImages

Football has its fair share of modern-day problems and drug doping remains a controversial and nuanced issue for the game's leading officials.

While clubs around the world are always looking for their next advantage in an ever-evolving landscape, players are under pressure to tow the line and stay away from doping due to issues around athlete safety, fair play and the integrity of the sport.

However, footballers have come under the microscope and been banned for taking unauthorised substances over the years, whether it was deliberate or otherwise.

Here's what you need to know about doping in football.

What is doping and why is it illegal?

Anabolic Steroids
Doping is illegal throughout the sporting world / Simon Hausberger/GettyImages

Doping is the use of prohibited drugs or substances to enhance physical performance in sport. The International Olympic Committee defines it as "the intentional or unintentional use of prohibited substances and prohibited methods on the current doping list".

Players who have doped in the past may have done so with the aim of gaining increased stamina or strength for matches, though the many risks far outweigh the slim chances of success. Footballers can suffer harm to their physical, mental and emotional well-being by doping.

The pressures of modern-day football can influence players - especially younger stars - to dope to maintain high levels of performance and increase their chances of winning, while injured footballers may also be tempted to reduce their time in recovery.

The risk to player welfare and disregard for fair play means doping is banned throughout football, with punishments varying from monetary fines to on-field suspensions.

Anything on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of Prohibited Substances is off limits for players and staff, who are reminded it is their responsibility to ensure their body does not come into contact with any banned material.

Random player testing is regularly carried out to measure players' blood and urine after games, with the punishment for skipping these commitments considerable. Rio Ferdinand was a high-profile example, missing eight months of action for Man Utd after failing to present himself at Carrington for a test.

As well as being guilty of doping, players can also face bans for:

  • Missing a maximum of three tests with doping control officers
  • Possessing or passing on prohibited substances
  • Encouraging a third party to violate anti-doping rules
  • Failure to provide whereabouts information every three months
  • Refusing a test

Some of the most well-known substances used for doping in sports are anabolic steroids, stimulants and human growth hormone (HGH).

How widespread is doping in football?

The use of performance-enhancing drugs isn't widely associated with football like it is in other sports like cycling, weight-lifting and athletics, all of which have been rocked by regular scandals over the years.

However, when stories of doping crop up in football - such as Paul Pogba's four-year ban and Andre Onana's suspension - they tend to be huge news.

FIFA's latest anti-doping report was released in February 2023 for the 2021/22 season revealed 2,921 doping control tests were carried out in the organisation's 11 different competitions, with only six returning "adverse analytical findings".

Of those six, four test results led to suspension, another was found to have been "administrated by an authorised route and not prohibited" and the final case was pending.

UEFA store all samples collected in the Champions League, Europa League, Conference League and European Championship for ten years so they can be re-analysed. That gives players a large deterrent to avoid going down the doping route, as rule violations can be prosecuted up to ten years after they have been committed.

There remain challenges for authorities to navigate, however. Masking agents and loopholes in testing protocols have helped players escape without sanctions in the past.

Paul Pogba and other famous doping cases in football

Paul Labile Pogba
Pogba has been banned after testing positive for testosterone / Gabriele Maltinti/GettyImages

While not as rife as in other sports, football has had its fair share of doping cases.

Paul Pogba tested positive for testosterone in September 2023 and was suspended while an investigation took place. In February 2024, it was revealed the French World Cup winner had been given the heftiest punishment available, being banned for four years. Pogba has announced his intention to appear against the Court of Arbitration for Sport's verdict.

Current Man Utd goalkeeper Onana and former defender Ferdinand have been hit with sanctions, while Pep Guardiola was even found guilty in an Italian court of law and given a seven-month suspended prison sentence that was later overturned when he was proved innocent.

Diego Maradona, Edgar Davids and Samir Nasri are other high-profile names who were found to be cheating the system.