Last week, every footballer in England and Wales received an email warning them about a painkiller that, until now, they might never have realised could put them at risk. The warning came from the Professional Footballers’ Association and, to put it into context, the drug in question, tramadol, is described as “evil” by one of the players who has found out the hard way how dangerous it can be.
“The concern we have is there is an explicit acknowledgement that it is an addictive substance,” says Ben Wright, the PFA’s director of external affairs. “It’s habit-forming, it’s an opiate and it’s often referred to as being in the same family as heroin. It can sound like an extreme comparison, but it is fairly well accepted.”
Tramadol is a strong, prescription-only painkiller that has been cited by Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool and England international goalkeeper, as the source of an addiction that came close to destroying him. On January 1, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will add tramadol to its prohibited list and, from that point onwards, anybody caught with it in their system will face a lengthy ban. That, however, is causing concerns among the football authorities when there is considerable evidence that an indeterminable number of players are either using it, or reliant upon it, as a perfectly legal part of their routine.
“Somebody is going to get caught,” says Kirkland. “I’m glad this ban is happening because it’s a dangerous, dangerous drug. But you’re not going to eradicate it and somebody will fail a test, it’s inevitable. It’s going to be extremely tough for a lot of players because there will be many who rely on it.”
The Athletic has spent weeks looking at the scale of tramadol use within the sport and, though the secrecy around its use makes it difficult to establish all the facts, there are several key issues our investigation has highlighted: WADA has delayed the ban to take into account the addictiveness of tramadol and give users more time to wean themselves off it. There is a strong possibility that some, or many, users are taking it in secret, without their clubs’ knowledge. Players who have become dependent talk about it wrecking their lives. Footballers buying supplies off the internet as “pain pills” without knowing the dangers or that it will soon be banned.
This is why the PFA, as the players’ union, has taken the unusual step of emailing its members, including 5,000 current footballers, to highlight the risks and make it clear there is a deadline approaching, beyond which there will be serious consequences. The Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League and the Women’s Super League are acutely aware of the risks as there is considerable evidence that an indeterminable number of players are either using it, or reliant upon it, as a perfectly legal part of their routine.
“Ultimately, if you fail a test, you risk a significant ban,” says Wright. “From our understanding, the risk is a two to four-year ban.”
Cresswell spiraled into addiction issues involving sleeping pills and alcohol and was admitted into the Sporting Chance clinic, the rehabilitation center set up by former England defender Tony Adams, before managing to turn his life around. Ryan Cresswell became addicted to Tramadol (Pete Norton/Getty Images)
“Tramadol is strong stuff,” he says. “Have I had it? Yeah. Did it knock me sick? Yeah. Would I attempt to train on tramadol? No. I wouldn’t attempt to get behind the wheel of a car on tramadol. If you’re playing football… I’m not being funny, but you can’t. It knocks you off your feet.”
“April 17, 2022, was the last time I took tramadol. The next 10 days were horrendous. I was crammed up in a room, I was feeling sick, I was vomiting, I couldn’t eat anything, I was having hallucinations. I’d got to the point where I didn’t want to put another tablet in my mouth. I got through it, but it wasn’t pleasant at all and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”