On the afternoon of April 23rd 2016, as I stood in the Anfield Family Zone prior to the Premier League game against Newcastle United, the news broke that Mamadou Sakho had failed a drug test and would not be available for selection, effective immediately. Phones were passed around among fans to allow them to read the somewhat sketchy facts that were quickly emerging on the breaking news sites.
The overwhelming mood among the fans at that very moment was one of disappointment. There wasn’t anger or resentment, just numerous heads shaking as the shock and enormity of the news sank in.
In the days and weeks that followed the initial 30-day suspension, and as the story developed, both Mamadou Sakho and Liverpool Football Club suffered as a result of this failed drug test. Europa League finals (and Champions League places) were lost, as were places in the France Euro 2016 Squad. It’s fair to say that Mamadou Sakho suffered more than most.
When the news broke that the provisional 30-day suspension would not be extended, and that UEFA were launching an investigation into the substance that showed up in the sample provided by Sakho, to determine whether it should even be on the banned substance list (which was the defence launched by Sakho’s legal team), there was the usual and somewhat understandable outcry from the red half of Merseyside about the injustice of the whole sorry saga.
LFC had lost arguably their best defender for a major European Final which saw the defence fall apart during a 45 minute Spanish siege. Irrespective of whether Sakho’s replacement Kolo Toure had been the Liverpool man of the match, the loss of Sakho was keenly felt during that ill-fated second half. How can this have happened considering the fact that UEFA themselves aren’t sure that the substance should be banned? Why was he considered ‘guilty’ immediately? Aren’t we all innocent until proven guilty?
We have since learned that it was Sakho himself who (with the agreement of the club) voluntarily asked to be given a provisional 30-day suspension from UEFA. This led to calls by many Liverpool supporters to appoint him as Club Captain – the move to be voluntarily suspended seen as a move to ‘protect the club’ during the investigation.
While it can be argued that Sakho’s active presence on the pitch following the failed drugs test would certainly have drawn ire and ridicule from other clubs and most likely from the media themselves, I disagreed strongly that his actions should see him ‘rewarded’ with the captaincy of the club.
I cannot escape the basic facts of this situation – Sakho took a substance that set off alarm bells within the drug-testing community. Whether the substance should or should not be on the WADA banned list is a moot point. The UEFA investigation into whether this substance should be banned showed that at best the substance was ‘borderline’. Sakho, along with every other professional sportsperson in the world, was given the full list of banned substances, and based on the simple fact that he’s paid £75,000 per week by Liverpool Football Club, should have taken the necessary care to ensure he did not test positive for any of those substances, irrespective of how spurious their inclusion on the list actually was. Let us not forget, in this hour of drug-taking cover ups among certain countries, that fat-burners / slimming-pills are known to be highly effective in masking other drugs that may have been taken. I’m not implying that Mamadou has taken any illegal performance-enhancing drugs, but he did take something that raised eyebrows.
His decision to take the 30-day suspension was the right one, and should be applauded. However it’s also one that should be expected of others in the same situation, and I don’t give a rats ass about anybody who has/would do different.
This is not an anti-Sakho piece, I hasten to add. I for one am a huge fan of his abilities on the field. Since that whole sorry drug saga however, Sakho has fallen foul of Jurgen Klopp on numerous other occasions: Late for the flight to take LFC stateside for their pre-season tour. Late for a team dinner on the pre-season tour. Missed a treatment session on an existing achilles injury. There is the now infamous TV interview in Alcatraz with Klopp which Sakho interrupted while ‘messing around’. This was at a time when he was running foul of Klopp on an almost daily basis due to his tardiness and absence at key points of the pre-season tour, so the jovial response from Klopp where he stated ‘Maybe we should leave you locked up here’ probably carried far more truth than anyone realised at the time. Many a true word spoken in jest, as they say.
(Let us also not forget Sakho’s Anfield storm-out before the Premier League game v Everton when informed by then manager Brendan Rodgers that he was not selected)
I believe that the final straw for Klopp was the refusal of Sakho to heed his advice and head out on loan to another club. Many admired Sakho’s stance and his desire to fight for his place in the team, but we must believe that his future (or lack thereof) had been explicitly stated to him at the time. Therefore in hindsight his refusal to go on loan was not so much an admirable effort to win favour but more of a public two-finger salute to Jurgen Klopp.
So here we are in December with a clear signal from Jurgen Klopp that Sakho is for sale in the January sales. I first wrote this article last April amidst all the furore of the drug test enquiry, and at that point I felt that the majority of the LFC fans were on his side. However the tide of public opinion has notably turned against Mamadou Sakho, so the statement by Klopp yesterday has been met largely with approval. It’s amazing what success on the pitch can do to public opinion…
Another important aspect of this drama is how effective Jurgen Klopp has proven to be when dealing with a ‘problem’ within the squad. A manager can have all the tactical nous in the world, the best motivational speeches or be the most popular manager alive, but if he can’t deal with issues when they arise, he’s a dead man walking. Klopp has been ruthless but fair, which will no doubt be noticed by every member of the squad. You get the impression that there won’t be many issues in the future from other squad members. With Klopp you’re either all-in or you’re out.
In conclusion, if Sakho’s Liverpool career does come to an end in the next month or so, I believe that we can clearly conclude that he is not a martyr. As for the other thing? Well, I’ll leave that decision to you.