"We are not here to scare you," said Richard Grisdale of UEFA's anti-doping unit. "Just be aware, think about what you are doing and if in doubt ask."
At the conclusion of a 45-minute talk to Italy's U19 squad about the perils of drug taking in sport, the message was loud and clear: "If you have any doubts at all, do ask. Ask your doctor, ask us. Do not take anything without checking first. It's really important because now you are at the top level and it would be such a stupid thing to make a mistake and ruin your career."
Italy are among eight sides at the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship in Italy, and all are attending presentations designed to give players a comprehensive understanding of the anti-doping issue. That includes the dangers of consuming banned substances – to a player's career and health – what constitutes an anti-doping rule violation and how anti-doping procedures are implemented for players involved in UEFA competition.
These sessions have been held at all UEFA youth tournaments since 2005, with Grisdale and Dr Jacques Liénard, of the UEFA anti-doping panel, taking the floor at these latest sessions in Cervia.
After a general introduction, the players and team staff are shown a video detailing how anti-doping procedures were applied at UEFA EURO 2008, the benchmark for all future UEFA tournaments. Grisdale then discussed the importance of the anti-doping regulations formulated by the World Anti-Drugs Agency (WADA). "What this means for you is that for all the players you are playing against – Swiss, Belgians, Russians, whoever – the rules are the same for everybody."
The eight ways players can fall foul of the anti-doping regulations include ingesting outlawed substances sometimes found in medicine or food supplements. "If you have a cold, you must check before taking medicine," said Dr Liénard, who gave examples of professional players who were banned after inadvertently consuming over-the-counter products that included ephedrine.
"It may be OK for normal people to take it, but not you because you are elite athletes now. Sometimes there are surprises. A nasal decongestant that might be alright to take in one country, but not another. Even some medicines bought in the same country come in exactly the same packet, look exactly the same, but the substance within is not.
"If you test positive, we do not know if you took some medicine because you were ill or tablets to improve your performance so you must always check with your doctor. Even nutritional supplements can contain traces of banned substances. It's easy to make a mistake, but you will be suspended even if it accidental."
"If it's in your body, you are responsible," concluded Grisdale. "That is the most important thing to remember. We have no way of knowing if you took a substance deliberately or by accident. We can't prove that." But while the warning is clear, the presentations also stress that anonymity is central to anti-doping procedures, that the players are informed of their rights as well as their duties every step of the way.