Paul Pogba’s career is hanging in the balance after he failed an anti-doping test following Juventus’ 3-0 win over Udinese last month.
On Monday afternoon, NADO (the Italian Anti-Doping Organisation) announced Pogba has been provisionally suspended for submitting an adverse analytical finding. According to NADO, testosterone not produced by the body was detected in the sample Pogba provided. The midfielder was an unused substitute in Juventus’ victory at the Stadio Friuli, but he did come off the bench in their next two matches against Bologna and Empoli before the international break.
It is the latest setback for the France international. Pogba has endured a difficult time with injuries since he rejoined Juventus in summer 2022 after his contract with Manchester United expired. But what happens next? What punishment could Pogba face? How can players who have been accused of committing doping offences prove their innocence? And what is the difference between an A and B sample?
Here, The Athletic breaks down the situation.
What are the anti-doping rules?
Anti-doping rules exist within football to ensure nobody gains an unfair competitive advantage and to protect a player’s health. The World Anti-Doping Agency sets out a code which most sporting organisations around the world follow.
FIFA’s website says “it is the player’s strict responsibility to make sure that their body does not come into contact with any prohibited substance or method” and that they should check every medication or treatment they receive.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has a list, which it regularly updates, of prohibited substances and methods. Athletes are only allowed to use prohibited substances or methods if they have a legitimate medical reason and are granted a therapeutic use exemption (TUE).
For example, the British cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins was granted a TUE ahead of the 2012 Tour de France which allowed him to take the corticosteroid Triamcinolone to treat asthma — Wiggins went on to win the event. Triamcinolone was added to WADA’s prohibited list in 2014 as it also has performance-enhancing properties, namely allowing athletes to reduce their weight without suffering a significant loss in power.
What happens when a player is tested?
For FIFA competitions, including the men’s and women’s editions of the World Cup, tests are conducted by the organisation’s Anti-Doping Unit. But players can also be tested by representatives from FIFA, UEFA or the NADO of their country or any country they happen to be staying in.
Tests are conducted randomly, which means players are not given any warning about them. They can occur after matches, at training sessions or at home. After Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1 in the 2018 Champions League Final, Gareth Bale — who scored twice — was prevented from celebrating with his team-mates as he was taken for testing by officers from UEFA.
When tests take place after a game, players are notified they have been chosen and are escorted into a doping control room by a chaperone. A doping control officer will then explain the process and inform the player of their rights and responsibilities. The player has to remain under the observation of the chaperone and/or the doping control officer for the entire test.
The player will provide a urine or blood sample, sometimes both are required, and they are allowed to check the samples have been sealed correctly before they are sent off to a WADA-accredited laboratory for analysis. When players provide a urine sample, of at least 90 millilitres, the doping control officer needs to directly observe the passing of urine from the body into the collection tube.
Samples will be checked for steroids, stimulants, EPOs, growth hormones and recreational drugs including cannabis and cocaine. All the test results will be collected in an athlete’s biological passport for record-keeping. If a player fails or refuses to submit a sample, evades the test or tampers with it, then it counts as an anti-doping violation.
How often are players tested?
Due to the random nature of the tests, players might go through periods of their career where they are tested a lot or rarely.
During the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year, FIFA carried out 369 tests which produced 941 samples. According to official data from FIFA, every player was tested at least once in the year building up to the tournament. Players from the eight teams which reached the quarter-finals (Morocco, England, France, Brazil, Argentina, Croatia, the Netherlands and Portugal), were tested on average 4.6 times from January 2022. Some members of those eight squads were tested up to 10 times.
What happens when a player tests positive?
If traces of a prohibited substance are found within a player’s body, they are provisionally suspended while further analysis takes place. Pogba’s ‘A’ sample flagged up traces of testosterone. The human body naturally produces testosterone but exogenous testosterone can be detected by measuring the ratio of testosterone (T) to epitestosterone (E) in an athlete’s urine.
Testosterone affects the body in lots of different ways, including by regulating bone mass, fat distribution, muscle mass and muscle strength — which is why taking extra amounts of it is prohibited.
What is a B sample?
When players provide a sample, it is split into two parts which are labelled A and B. If the A sample is positive for a banned substance, the B sample is checked as a precautionary measure, which is what will happen in Pogba’s case. The player can request a B sample being tested within three days of a positive test. Once the request is made, the result of this test has to be delivered within seven days. Conor Benn’s boxing match against Chris Eubank Jnr in October 2022 was called off two days before it was due to take place. A substance called Clomifene was found in Benn’s body. Clomifene is on WADA’s banned list because it can help raise the levels of testosterone in an athlete’s body. The decision to cancel the fight was made before Benn’s B sample was analysed.
In February 2023, the World Boxing Council issued a statement which said Benn provided an adverse analytical finding due to a “highly-elevated consumption of eggs” and that it was “a reasonable explanation.” Benn was reinstated to the WBC rankings and in July the National Anti-Doping Panel lifted his suspension.
However, the British Boxing Board of Control and UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) have appealed this decision, which underlines how complicated these situations are when an athlete is accused of doping. Benn’s fight with Eubank Jr. has still not been rearranged and his reputation has taken considerable damage.
What is the potential punishment?
Players can be banned from playing football for up to four years if they are found guilty of committing a doping offence. For Pogba, who turns 31 next March, a punishment that severe would effectively end his career at the top level. The length of the suspension can be reduced if players can demonstrate they did not intentionally break the rules.
In September 2003, Rio Ferdinand missed a drugs test he was supposed to attend at Manchester United’s training ground. In December, an independent tribunal found Ferdinand guilty of misconduct and he received an eight-month ban. This meant he was unable to represent England at the 2004 European Championship in Greece.
During his time at Ajax, traces of Furosemide were found in Andre Onana’s system. The substance was in a pack of tablets Onana’s wife was prescribed after giving birth and the goalkeeper accidentally took them. UEFA accepted Onana’s version of events but he was still given a 12-month ban, which was reduced to nine on appeal.
Pogba will be judged by the Anti-Doping Tribunal of the Italian Olympic Committee. In July 2022, Atalanta defender Jose Palomino tested positive for clostebol metabolites. Palomino was unable to play for three months while he waited for an outcome and was absolved in November due to accidental contamination. However, NADO is challenging the tribunal’s decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
In a statement, Pogba’s agent Rafaela Pimenta said: “We await the B sample and until then we can’t say anything. What we can say for sure is Paul never wanted to break the rules.”
(Photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)