Holland captain Frank De Boer, his international team-mate Edgar Davids and Portuguese skipper Fernando Couto all face the prospect of missing next year’s World Cup finals – presuming their teams qualify – after testing positive for the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone.

Juventus midfielder Davids and Lazio defender Couto, who both failed drugs tests after Serie A matches, have had their 16-month Italian bans extended worldwide by FIFA. They now face a long legal battle in the Italian courts to reduce their punishments.

Davids and Couto are the two biggest names to fall foul of Italian doping controls in the past season. Another seven Serie A and B players have been given similar bans after testing positive for nandrolone. They are Stefano Torrisi (Parma), Jean-Francois Gillet (Bari), Christian Bucchi and Salvatore Monaco (both Perugia), Nicola Caccia and Stefano Sacchetti (both Piacenza), and Andrea Da Rold (Pescara).

In Spain, De Boer plans to appeal against a one-year ban imposed by UEFA after testing positive for nandrolone following Barcelona’s UEFA Cup quarter-final against Celta Vigo.

The positive tests of Davids and De Boer led some to suspect that food supplements used by the Dutch national team were to blame. But laboratory tests proved negative.

Both Davids and De Boer have received strong backing from their national team colleagues, with Holland coach Louis Van Gaal calling for more scientific research on nandrolone.

“There hasn’t been even a sense of agreement among doctors so far,” said Van Gaal. “A lot of research has to be done on this issue before you can draw conclusions. I’mnot qualified enough to say something about it, but I believe Edgar and Frank are innocent.

“However, I’m sure that football isn’t free of drugs and sometimes I have my doubts. But as a coach I far more believe in making choices on the pitch and so far there isn’t a substance to improve players in that way.”

Davids has declined to talk to the press about his ban, but De Boer, as he explains below, has been more open.

World Soccer: Is it difficult to focus on football at the moment?
FRANK DE BOER: Not at all. The whole thing isn’t bothering me at the moment, because I know I’m innocent. I’m still convinced that it will end well. Why shouldn’t it be like that? So for me football isn’t a distraction at the moment. I’m not having sleepless nights and it’s not affecting my game.

Why are you convinced that this story will end happily?
Because I haven’t done anything wrong! At least, not anything I’m aware of.

So it’s possible that you have used drugs without knowing it?
What I have been using has been recorded and everything has been researched. It’s not in the food supplements of the Dutch national team and my personal stuff will be investigated in a laboratory in Groningen. The result could take a while because I understand that the whole place has to be rebuilt to do this research. So that means that there are three options. Either my body is producing it, it is in my food, or something went wrong with food supplements.

So it concerns more players than just Frank de Boer?
Yesterday (De Boer was talking at a training camp with thenational team for the match against Estonia), Ruud Van Nistelrooy came to my room and started asking questions.

What was I thinking when I heard the news? What was my reaction?Suddenly he realised that being accused of using drugs without being aware of it could happen to him as well. What was my first reaction? ‘Me, Frank De Boer, tested positive? There has got to be a mistake!’ But look what has happened.

Aren’t you afraid of being used as an example by the authorities, so they can take a firm line on doping?
No, that would be a major risk for Uefa. It will be proved that I’m innocent, and then they will be liable for a heavy financial claim.

What has upset you most about this episode?
That people arequestioning my integrity. My conscience is clear and still I’m reading headlines like: ‘He is acting the injured innocent.’ I would like to put those people six feet under.

The full, unedited version of this interview is available in the July 2001 isuue of World Soccer.