Russia tries to shake off doping scandals at World Cup

NOVOGORSK, Russia (AP) — A global event on Russian soil, and the home team can’t stop winning. Sports fans have seen this story before, and it had a bitter ending.

Russia hopes its surprise World Cup success is finally bringing it out of the shadow of the Sochi Olympics, which were tainted by widespread doping and accusations the government was complicit.

Goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev, the hero of Russia’s surprise win over Spain on Sunday, said Tuesday the football team is writing its own story, and has nothing to do with Russia’s troubled Olympic program. Russian athletes had to compete under a neutral flag at the Winter Olympics in February after years of doping scandals.

“I don’t think football and the Olympics really come into contact with each other. Of course we all watched the Olympics and we were worried but that’s its own story,” he said. “The current national (football) team wants to win and that’s the most important thing.”

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Akinfeev was speaking after training at Russia’s Novogrosk Olympic base outside Moscow, a vast complex which the team shares with numerous other sports. On the next field, members of Russia’s suspended track and field team trained, including the triple jumper Ekaterina Koneva, who was once banned for having artificially high testosterone levels.

Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko — who was Sports Minister for the 2014 Sochi Olympics — is a frequent visitor to Russia’s World Cup training sessions and celebrated the Spain win in the team’s dressing room. He was banned from the Olympics for life in December after the International Olympic Committee ruled his ministry didn’t do enough to stop organized doping.

Russia has a history of doubts over its football players.

“Let’s hope their performances are miraculous and they’re doing it the right way,” United States Anti-Doping Agency chief executive Travis Tygart told The Associated Press on Monday. “It’s unfair to draw any conclusions different than that, but the problem is, the system in Russia has let the athletes down and created a dark cloud that’s going to follow every performance those guys have.”

Documents released in 2016 as part of a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation alleged officials covered up suspicious test results by five national youth team football players at the same Novogorsk base where the World Cup team now trains. Elevated testosterone readings, cannabis and the banned substance arimistane were allegedly all detected, but no action was taken.

There’s no suggestion that Russia’s football program used the elaborate Olympic sample-swapping that the World Anti-Doping agency dubbed the “disappearing positive methodology.”

Instead of swapping dirty samples for clean urine in the dead of night, emails and lab records provided by doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov describe a looser, more informal system.

WADA found that positive tests were referred to sports ministry officials who would decide whether to “save” the player by covering up the test. This allegedly happened for at least eight elite men’s players including defender Ruslan Kambolov, who was in Russia’s preliminary World Cup squad but not the final 23-man list. The Russian government denies any role in doping.

FIFA investigated Kambolov’s case this year and hasn’t given any update, though his lawyers said he was cleared. FIFA said it played no role in Russia’s decision to drop him from the squad.

The lab records also suggest preparations were made in case players from the 2014 World Cup tested positive. A list of players was drawn up, but there’s no evidence any of the players were aware of the alleged safety net.

The last Russian player to be banned for doping on international duty was midfielder Yegor Titov, banned one year in 2004 after testing positive for bromantan. Defender Sergei Ignashevich, who’s played in all four of Russia’s World Cup games, served a one-game ban in 2009 after testing positive in a club game for what UEFA said was a cold medication.

Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov has refused to address the doping issue during the World Cup.

The Russian team has displayed excellent stamina, something Alexander Golovin typified that in extra time against Spain when he surged past Iago Aspas for a loose ball, even though he’d played the entire game and Aspas had just entered.

Golovin led the game on total distance covered, most sprints and top speed. A team’s best sprinter is rarely also its best long-distance runner. Russia’s goalkeeper and captain Igor Akinfeev was taken for drug testing after the game, disrupting his celebrations, and team personnel said the squad had been visited by drug testers at its base earlier in the week.

The winger Denis Cheryshev , who hit Russia’s final penalty in the shootout, has denied taking banned substances at Spanish club Villarreal. That stems from a reference to “growth hormone” in an interview his father Dmitry gave a year ago. The interview, published by Russian magazine Sport Weekend, included a claim that Villarreal staff had administered the substance to treat an injury.

His father said Saturday he meant to refer to a legal substance but was misunderstood.

At the time, the World Anti-Doping Agency referred the case to its investigations department, and the Spanish agency described it as “most upsetting and remarkable news.” Neither agency replied to a request for comment Tuesday.

FIFA said it’s taken more than 2,700 samples from players related to the World Cup since January — of whom not all made the final squads. FIFA has not said how often players were tested, only that each was tested at least once, or how many of those tests were out of competition.

“In sports you want everyone to be willing to believe in the magic, but when you’re not willing to give concrete data, it’s hard,” Tygart said. “And you can assume they don’t give them in part because the data isn’t very good.”

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James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

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