Dope fiends?

The head of Spain’s professional league (LFP), Jose Luis Astiazaran, has denied claims made by As that he was complicit in the supply of banned substances to players while president of Real Sociedad.

As published an interview with Inaki Badiola, who had a spell as Sociedad president in 2008, in which he said two club doctors had been given money to buy banned drugs in the years before he took over.

Badiola has said the club may have used the services of Eufemiano Fuentes, the doctor currently on trial for doping charges in Spain.

Documents revealed during the ‘Operacion Puerto’ trial last week contained the code ‘RSOC’. Fuentes joked that this “sounds like the name of a good wine” but Badiola said it appeared to be a reference to Real Sociedad.

“It looks like it, but it should be Eufemiano himself who confirms it in court,” he said. “What is certain is that, in 2008, our board publicly denounced doctors Eduardo Escobar and Antxon Gorrotxategi because, in the six seasons before us, at least, the directors paid for medicines or products which at that moment were categorised as used in doping.

“These were acquired with dirty money on the black market. We would like to see if [the evidence seen in court] fits with what we already said in 2008.”

The LFP published a statement from Astiazaran responding to the allegations in which he said he had neither knowledge nor suspicion of illegal practices by medical staff during his time as Sociedad president between 2001 and 2005.

“Real Sociedad has always, and obviously under my presidency, collaborated closely with authorities charged with testing for doping and there has never been any incident in the numerous anti-doping tests taken,” Astiazaran said.

“Given the statements and falsities expressed by Mr. Badiola, I reserve the right to begin whatever legal proceedings will be necessary to defend my honour,” he added.

Back in the groove

For once it really was a case of Super rather than Stupid Mario, as Mario Balotelli marked his return to Italian football by scoring twice, including a last minute winner from the penalty spot, in Milan’s 2-1 victory over Udinese.

Those two goals doubled what he managed for Manchester City in the first half of the season and they were gratefully received by Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani, who did get a little carried away by the instant impact made by the newly-arrived striker.

“We don’t have Messi but we have Balotelli. This attack reminds me of Barcelona and we will see the benefit in terms of sponsors because he is only 22 and he has great potential,” he said.

“He has extraordinary technical and physical qualities. He can reach his full potential at Milan. I think there is too much pressure on him from the media and at 22 he is developing.”

Too much pressure on him?  A bit rich, coming from the man who compared him to Lionel Messi.

Match fixing

The European police agency says a match fixing investigation has uncovered more than 380 suspicious matches, including Word Cup and European Championship qualifiers and two Champions League games.

Europol’s chief Rob Wainwright said the investigation uncovered ”match fixing activity on a scale we have not seen before.”

A sobering thought for everyone involved in the game. For all the money being thrown at the major leagues, there are many players, operating outside the elite, for whom throwing a football match is not a moral dilemma, but a financial one.

Europol said that criminals put €16m on rigged matches and made €8m in profits.

Payments of €2m are thought to have been paid to those involved, while investigators said that the biggest payment to an individual was €140,000.

Europol believes an Asian-based crime syndicate was liaising with criminal networks throughout Europe. Worryingly, officials said they feared this was the “tip of the iceberg”.

” This is the work of a suspected organised crime syndicate based in Asia and operated with criminal networks around Europe,” Rob Wainwright, the director of Europol, said.

“It is clear to us this is the biggest-ever investigation into suspected match-fixing in Europe. It has yielded major results which we think have uncovered a big problem for the integrity of football in Europe. We have uncovered an extensive criminal network.”

Goal of the day

A couple of stunning strikes (one from a free-kick, the other from open play) from Dries Mertens in PSV Eindhoven 7-0 thrashing of Den Haag.

Leopard doesn’t change its spots

Joey Barton has apologised after being sent off for the first time as Marseille player.

Making his 9th appearance as a Marseille player, the midfielder was booked for two separate challenges.

“I am disappointed,” said Barton, who has been sent off seven times in total. “I am partly responsible for this loss.

“I apologise to my team-mates. The referee made his decisions, but I don’t think my tackles were too dangerous.”

By Barton’s standards it was a typical day at the office: two yellow cards – the first a little harsh as the contact was minimal; the second stupidly wreckless in that he had just been booked and knew he was walking the proverbial tightrope.

Marseille coach Elie Baup believes the seventh sending off of Barton’s career was a turning point in the game, although he did not feel it was deserved.

“The game turned with the expulsion of Barton,” said Baup after the 1-0 defeat to Nancy.

“We had not been brilliant in the game, but there was no real danger [before the red card]. Being down to 10 men made things more difficult.

“His first card was unjustified since there was no foul, and on the second he was committed to trying to get the ball.

A downbeat Baup sounded like a man who had lost the office sweepstake on the number of games Barton would play before receiving his first red card.

He said: “We waited a long time and wondered when Barton would be sent off for the first time, and that was done tonight [Sunday]. But he did not deserve to be sent off.”

Quote of the day

“Daniel Sturridge has been immense and has given us a tonic, a reference at the front for the team. He is now part of the jigsaw of our growth – we are growing all the time and that is what this season is about.

I’m sure this sentence made sense when it was first formulated in his brain, but by the time Brendan Rodgers uttered the words it had become pure gibberish. Translations to the usual address…

Time for a change

FIFA’s rules-making panel will consider changing how the offside law is interpreted at its annual meeting next month.

FIFA says its refereeing department suggests amending offside rules to clarify when forwards standing in an offside position can legally influence play.

And why not? It’s been ooh, let me think, at least a week since they last tinkered with the offside law.

Dream is over

Didier Drogba believes believes his chances of ever lifting the Africa Cup of Nations disappeared for good after Sunday’s 2-1 defeat by Nigeria.

Not only for Droga, who at 34, may well have played his last African Nations Cup tournament, but also for many fellow members of Ivory Coast’s so-called Golden Generation.

“It’s over,” Drogba. “We now look ahead to the World Cup, with or without me.”

“It is heartbreaking,” said centre-back Souleman Bamba, who deflected a shot from Sunday Mba over his own goalkeeper for the Nigerian winner.

“We were the strong favourite, but unfortunately we didn’t manage to do what we wanted to do, to win this competition.

“The start of the second half was very good, we’ve scored an equaliser, but for some reason we didn’t manage to make more goals and that’s the big disappointment.”

Victors Nigeria, whose players and coach, Stephen Keshi, were lambasted for their form in the group stages, found the perfect riposte to the critics.

“I want to sincerely thank my players for everything they did today (Sunday),” Keshi said. “The players showed character. It’s the kind of character that I know we have in Nigeria. We always fight, fight, fight.

“I had absolute 120 percent confidence in my players and we had to get ourselves ready for the game. We weren’t going to come here and just give it to Ivory Coast.”

Money matters

UEFA insist they will monitor sponsorship deals struck by clubs such as Paris St Germain and Manchester City to ensure they are not breaking the Financial Fair Play rules.

European clubs made record losses of €1.7 billion in 2011, UEFA said in an annual analysis of club accounts, underlining the scale of the debt problem.

Clubs failing to break could be excluded from European competition from 2014-15. Critics fear that clubs will circumvent the rules through extravagant sponsorship deals with companies linked to team owners.

English Premier League champions Manchester City have an Abu Dhabi owner and are sponsored by the country’s Etihad Airlines, while Qatari-owned PSG are reported to be on the verge of a €200-million-euro deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority.

“Everyone including Paris Saint Germain or any other club, they know the rules, they know when they kick in and they know what they have to demonstrate,” UEFA general-secretary Gianni Infantino told reporters.

Infantino said clubs had to show they could bring costs and revenues into balance “without cheating”.

“A related party cannot just inject money into a club directly or indirectly though different systems,” he said, adding that sponsorship deals would be scrutinised to ensure they represented fair value.

UEFA agreed in 2010 to phase in a raft of measures to try to stop European clubs from getting into financial trouble. The figures for 2012 will be the first ones to be assessed as part of the break-even requirement.

UEFA said owners of 46 loss-making clubs would have had to invest in more shares to improve their balance sheets had the rules been in force between 2009 and 2011.

Showing it was serious about implementing the rules, UEFA said in December that it was banning Spanish club Malaga from future European competition for at least a season over unpaid bills.

UEFA talk a good game, but only when clubs of the stature of Chelsea or Manchester City are banned from European football for overspending, will the new rules gain any credibility. Until then, a healthy scepticism prevails.

Back from the brink

Former Danish champions Brondby averted bankruptcy on Monday after announcing the club’s immediate financial future had been secured.

Trading in the club’s shares on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange had been suspended on Monday but Brondby later said the side would be safe until a new share issue could be staged in “spring 2013”.

“We are very pleased to have created the basis for the continuation of Brondby until recapitalisation,” Brondby director Tommy Hakansson said in a statement.

“And we’re very, very pleased that we have secured the employees their full salary, not only in January but also in the future.”

The non-payment of January salaries on the last day of the month combined with holiday pay owed to current and former players, had seemed to be the beginning of the end for Brondby who are stuck to the bottom of Denmark’s Superligaen.

But negotiations with various investors and creditors – among them the players’ union – resulted in a deal.

The new issue is expected to raise between 75 million (£8.5 million) and 150 million Danish crowns (£17 million).

It’s all a far cry from the club’s golden age in the 1990s when Brondby provided the backbone of the Denmark side that won the 1992 European championship.