On Sunday, June 4, 2017, a sample arrived at the doping laboratory in Seibersdorf, a town in Austria just south of Vienna. It bore the code number 3324822 and had arrived from Wales. Inside the sealed bottle were 110 milliliters of urine provided by a player from Real Madrid the night before following the Champions League final against Juventus Turin in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Just over a month later, on July 5, the deputy head of the Seibersdorf laboratory sent a report to the headquarters of the Union of European Football Associations, better known as UEFA, on the shores of Lake Geneva. The Austrians had analyzed the sample and found that it contained traces of dexamethasone, a cortisone preparation that has an anti-inflammatory effect in addition to relieving pain. It also increases cognition and concentration and can have a euphoric effect. And it is on the list kept by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) of substances that are prohibited in competition.
It wasn’t difficult for UEFA’s medical unit to determine which of the players had signed for sample 3324822 following the Champions League final in Cardiff. They were, after all, in possession of documents that matched players with sample codes.
And this sample belonged to Sergio Ramos, captain of both Real Madrid and of the Spanish national team, a player who had won the World Cup once, the European championship twice and who had just become a three-time Champions League winner. He is one of the best football players in the world.
The dexamethasone-case has never before been made public and the file remains behind lock-and-key at UEFA. No disciplinary action was taken, neither against the player nor against the team doctor from Real Madrid, despite all of the anomalies in the case. Indeed, the way in which UEFA swept the case under the rug shines a rather unflattering light on the anti-doping fight in top-level European football.
Two days after the arrival of the report from Austria, a member of UEFA’s anti-doping unit contacted Ramos, 32, for an explanation. The player replied on July 10, addressing the UEFA employee by her first name. It was a brief statement of just four lines. The Real Madrid team doctor, he wrote, had treated him on the day before the game. All additional details, he noted, were elucidated in an attached “medical report” that the doctor had prepared. “I hope this fully clarifies the situation,” Ramos concluded.
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WADA has established clear rules for the use of dexamethasone. Its administration is allowed prior to matches. But it is mandatory that such an administration be reported by the team doctor in the course of a doping test. Should the doctor neglect to do so and should traces of dexamethasone be found in an athlete’s blood, it is considered as a suspected case of doping. The next, compulsory step is the initiation of a doping investigation.
That was the problem Ramos found himself facing. In the form attached to sample 3324822, in the space where medications taken in the last seven days are supposed to be listed, there is no mention at all of dexamethasone.
Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
It was merely noted that the Real Madrid defender had received an intra-articular injection on the day before the final of a different medication: Celestone Chronodose. He had received 1.2 milliliters of the stuff in his shoulder and another injection of the same dose in his knee. Like dexamethasone, Celestone Chronodose, better known as betamethasone, is a glucocorticoid and also has an anti-inflammatory effect. And it, too, is on the WADA list of banned substances.
The UEFA report notes that Ramos appeared at the doping control station in Cardiff at 10:38 p.m. on June 3, immediately after the award ceremony. It took almost two hours for the blood sample and urine sample to be taken and Ramos was only finished after midnight, checking out at 12:26 a.m. The team doctor, Dr. A., a traumatologist who is also the team doctor for the Spanish national rugby team, accompanied him throughout the process. He signed the doping control form along with Ramos.
Following the finding of dexamethasone, Dr. A. took on the role of scapegoat. His report for UEFA reads like a mea culpa. The message was clear: Ramos was innocent, and it was me, the doctor, who had messed up.
Because Ramos suffers from “chronic pathologies” in his left knee and left shoulder, the doctor wrote, he had given the player two injections of dexamethasone on the day before the Champions League final. The fact that he had noted down the wrong drug in the doping report following the game was because of the “euphoria” resulting from winning the title and the “specific circumstances in which this doping control takes place.” Namely, His Majesty Juan Carlos, the former King of Spain, had dropped by the doping control station to visit Ramos as had the Spanish prime minister.
In the confusion, he had made a mistake, mixing up two similar substances that are subjected to the same criteria during a doping test. It was a “human error,” wrote Dr. A., “and therefore understandable.” He wrote that he never intended “to infringe any anti-doping regulation.”
The doctor’s statement was apparently well received in UEFA’s anti-doping unit. According to the response sent to Sergio Ramos and Real Madrid, the association consulted an “expert” who confirmed that two intravenous injections of 1.2 milliliters of dexamethasone would produce the rough equivalent of the dexamethasone concentration found in the sample of the player’s urine. UEFA took note of the club’s explanation. It was “very likely” that the player and the doctor had committed “an administrative mistake.”
With that, UEFA closed the case. “In the future, we ask you and your team doctor to be utmost cautious,” the letter concluded, “when completing the doping control form and more precisely the declaration of medication.”
In response to a query, UEFA replied that the decision was taken “in compliance” with the WADA code. Both FIFA and WADA have the ability to challenge UEFA decisions with respect to doping issues in front of the International Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, UEFA wrote. Neither Ramos nor the team doctor nor Real Madrid chose to comment on the proceedings.
Still, one is left with the impression that in the Ramos dexamethasone case, the prominence of the athlete and the aura of the team may have had an influence on how the tests were treated. That impression has to do with a different, yet equally vexing incident. And once again, it has to do with a drug test involving Real Madrid.
On Feb. 1, 2017, four months prior to the Champions League final in Cardiff, two doping control officers from UEFA travelled to Madrid to perform unannounced tests on 10 Real Madrid players at a team practice. During the tests, however, the UEFA workers temporarily lost control of the proceedings, a situation UEFA outlined in a report sent to Real Madrid two weeks later. One letter was sent to the team’s general director, José Ángel Sánchez, and another to Cristiano Ronaldo.
According to the report, Ronaldo had “complained that he was always selected” for testing. When the UEFA testers had to place the needle a second time, the superstar once again “showed his dissatisfaction,” according to the report. This “caused a lot of tension in the doping control station,” the UEFA officers wrote.
The situation then became even more unpleasant. After blood was taken from both Ronaldo and German national team player Toni Kroos, medical personnel from Real Madrid suddenly turned up and inserted the needles for the tests on the remaining eight players. The UEFA controllers “accepted it exceptionally,” the association wrote in its report. The reason: “due to the situation of tension there was in the Doping Control station.”
There are clear rules and guidelines for unannounced tests. Teams must guarantee that the doping control officers are able to do their jobs independently and with no interference. Furthermore, players do not have a say in who accompanies them to the restroom for a urine sample or who draws their blood. Doping control officers may insert a needle three times on the search for a vein. But things become more abstruse when a team sends its own doctors to take over the work of the UEFA officers.
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In the wake of the incident, UEFA demanded “feedback” from Real Madrid. The response was clear. General Director Sánchez accused the two UEFA testers of inadequacy. He blamed their lack of “professional capability, skill or expertise” for the fact that the situation had spiraled out of control during the tests. Sánchez also defended Ronaldo, saying he had “respectfully complained,” and not because he had once again been singled out for testing but because the UEFA anti-doping officer had stuck him twice with a needle without finding a vein. In passing judgment on the controller who had tended to Ronaldo, Sánchez wrote that he had been “new for us and the players in his role and probably not very experienced in treating top players.”
There were no consequences for Real Madrid. UEFA, Real Madrid and Ronaldo all withheld comment when asked about the incident.
There is now an additional file pertaining to a current case involving Real Madrid. And it is one that could damage the reputation of the club and that of one of its top players. This time, the file in question is not in the possession of UEFA but of the Spanish anti-doping agency AEPSAD. And again, the focus is on Sergio Ramos.
On April 15 of this year, a Sunday evening, Real Madrid played a Primera División away match against FC Málaga, winning as expected 2:1. Following the final whistle, an anti-doping officer approached Ramos and asked him to submit to a doping test. What then allegedly took place is described by the head of the Doping Control Unit of the Spanish anti-doping agency in a two-page letter sent to Real Madrid’s medical chief on Sept. 21, 2018. The official’s portrayal of the events in question is based on a report compiled by the anti-doping officer after performing the test on Ramos in Málaga.
According to the report, Ramos asked the officer if he could shower before providing his urine sample. He said his teammates were waiting for him and they wanted to fly back to Madrid as soon as possible. The officer noted in his report that he prohibited Ramos from showering, in response to which Ramos expressed his “displeasure,” as did the Real Madrid team doctor, who was accompanying the star defender. According to the report, both complained that showering after matches was allowed. But the anti-doping officer claims that he did not back down and insisted that Ramos not shower before being tested.
But Sergio Ramos apparently decided to ignore the official and showered in front of him. “Despite my warning,” as the anti-doping officer wrote in his report. And despite the officer’s admonition that doing so could have serious consequences. There is good reason for the stringent procedures: They are designed to prevent athletes from discretely manipulating the results of a urine test.
This is why such clear regulations exist. When a player who is summoned for a doping test on Spanish territory showers or bathes prior to providing a urine sample, it could also constitute a violation of the country’s anti-doping laws. The Spanish parliament has strengthened the country’s doping legislation in recent years. The transgression that Ramos has been accused of can be found under paragraph 22.1.e). It reads: “Obstaculación de cualquier parte de los procedimientos de control de dopaje.” In English: “Obstruction of a part of doping control procedures.”
The possible penalties are severe. A club can be fined up to 300,000 euros, have points deducted or even face punitive relegation to a lower league. A team doctor could face a suspension of up to four years and a player could face a four-year ban. The suspension can be reduced to two years if the player can credibly argue that the violation “was not premeditated.”
After learning internally of the accusations levied by the Spanish anti-doping agency against Sergio Ramos, the team’s chief legal counsel outlined this horror scenario in an email sent on Sept. 30, 2018 to Real Madrid General Director Sánchez. “The penalties are extremely harsh,” the lawyer wrote gloomily.
After receiving the letter from the Spanish anti-doping agency in late September 2018, Ramos had 10 days to respond to the accusations in writing. Both he and Real Madrid declined to respond to a detailed request for comment from the journalism network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC). The Spanish anti-doping agency said in a statement that “in the present case, the result of the investigation proceedings did not establish any fact that would allow concluding that there was an act constituting an Anti-Doping violation.”
The question as to why it took the Spanish anti-doping agency more than five months to send Real Madrid official notification of the accusations against Sergio Ramos remained unanswered. Normally, it only takes a few weeks before an athlete is notified of inconsistencies during a doping test.
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