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Yesterday FIFA’s medical chief Michel D’Hooghe revealed a disturbing trend among footballers.The widespread abuse of anti-inflammatory drugs, especially at the youth level, had increased dramatically. He added that most players use them to deal with pain, muscle injuries and bruises.

As sensational as his words may appear, he also stated that it’s a far more serious threat than doping.

Of course the latest development is bad news for a sport that already has enough image problems.

FIFA got its first major warning on the abuse of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where teams have to let FIFA know from 72 hours in advance of a game what medicine players get.

“There was one team where 21 of 23 players were using them,” D’Hooghe said.

The overall percentage stood at 34.6 per cent in South Africa, but that already was an increase compared to 29 per cent at the 2006 tournament in Germany.

D’Hooghe and FIFA’s medical team have been looking at other tournaments since, and increasingly youth competitions.

“We can see it going crescendo,” he said. “For the young, it used to be nil, but now we are starting to see it shape up as something serious.”

But the abuse of perfectly legal drugs or substances is a dilemma that is far bigger than what even D’Hooghe suggests. We probably have only started to scratch its surface.

Along with painkillers there are also sleeping tablets, caffeine pills and a slew of other legal drugs athletes use to give them a competitive edge.

Only a few months ago some England fans were shocked when they found out the team had taken sleeping bills the night before the World Cup qualifier against Poland. It turns out the players had taken caffeine pills prior to the match to increase their concentration, but when the game was delayed by an entire day the players were still suffering from the caffeine boost and needed something to counteract the heightened sensation.

The reality is that footballers aren’t machines, yet they’re treated as such. In a game that has become so corporatized, these players are mainly viewed as functionary creatures. Although many of these legal drugs can negatively impact their livers, hearts and even lead to dependency or addiction, they’ll take them in order to perform on such a demanding stage.

Besides it’s easier to blame the athletes rather than the soccer culture itself. Schedules are so hectic that players barely receive the chance to allow their muscles and bodies to rest and heal naturally. In a sport where it’s all about winning trophies and the bottom line, clubs and teams can’t afford to allow players to heal the organic way, even if it means risking their health.