New Delhi: India's top goalkeeper Subrata Paul appeared to be staring at a career-threatening four-year ban for failing a dope test but has vowed to prove himself innocent by going for the confirmatory 'B' sample test.
The 30-year-old Paul returned positive for terbutaline in the tests conducted by National Anti-Doping Agency on his urine sample taken on March 18 during national camp in Mumbai.
Terbutaline is a bronchodilator and is taken when people have trouble breathing or for medical condition such as asthma. It is also present in commonly-used expectorants administered for cough and cold. But, athletes must apply for a TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) certificate if they want to use this kind of drugs.
All India Football Federation general secretary Kushal Das said Paul, an Arjuna Awardee, failed an out-of-competition test last month.
"Yes, Subrata Paul's 'A' sample has returned positive for a banned substance and he can be banned for four years if his 'B' sample also tests positive," Das told PTI.
"Actually, I am shocked at this development. Not many football players have failed dope tests. I never thought a player of his stature would fail a dope test," he added.
Under WADA rules, Paul can request for a confirmatory 'B' sample test within seven days. A first-time dope offender will be handed a maximum ban period of four years.
Interestingly though, there have been six earlier cases of terbutaline doping in India and out them, two have got bans of three months while three have been handed six-month bans. Only one athlete got a ban of one year.
This was available at NADA's list of sportspersons sanctioned by its Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel since 2009, put up on its website.
An AIFF source said that Paul had signed a declaration form when his urine sample was taken in Mumbai last month that he had undergone some treatment and had taken some drugs.
Paul said he will go for the 'B' sample test.
"I am shocked at this news that I failed a dope test. I will prove my innocence as I have played the game with honesty and integrity in my career of more than 10 years," Paul said.
"I will request for the 'B' sample test as I believe that I have not done anything to fail a dope test. All the players were tested during the Mumbai national camp and I never thought that my sample will return positive," he added.
Paul, who made his India debut in 2007 and played for the country 64 times till 2015, said there was no reason for him to cheat at this stage of his career.
"The AIFF officials, the fans, fellow players and the media knew that I have been an honest player throughout my career. I have built up a reputation and I have achieved a lot in my career, for my clubs and for my country. At this point in time of my career, I do not need anything like taking a banned drug to enhance my performance.
"So, I am shocked at this development. My reputation is at stake and I want to clear my name. That is why I will go for the 'B' sample test," he said, adding that he had taken medicines to treat cold and cough on and off.
There remained some confusion, though, over whether Paul has been put under provisional suspension or not. NADA Director General Navin Aggarwal said "a footballer has failed an A sample test but no footballer has been put under provisional suspension".
Paul also said he has not been provisionally suspended.
"The letter sent by NADA to me only said that it's not a mandatory suspension and I can continue playing. NADA had asked me to give information on how terbutaline has gone into my body," he said.
Das, however, maintained that Paul has been suspended.
"According to the NADA letter to AIFF, Subrata is under provisional suspension. He can apply for a B sample test as well as simultaneously appeal for lifting of this provisional suspension," said Das.
"Once he appeals (for lifting of provisional suspension), he can play but in case the NADA Panel rules against his appeal whatever match he has played after NADA's intimation to us on his dope failure will be forfeited (his club will be declared to have lost the match)."
Paul, from West Bengal, has been one of India's finest goalkeepers. He was the number one goalkeeper during the time Englishman Bob Houghton was at the helm of affairs as India coach and Bhaichung Bhutia as the captain. He played a major role in India winning the Nehru Cup in 2007 and 2009.
Paul's heroic performances were instrumental in India winning the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup in Hyderabad, which led to the qualification for the AFC Asian Cup held in Doha in 2011.
He was referred to by the foreign media as the 'Indian spiderman' due to a series of spectacular saves in the three group games, especially against South Korea.
In the last couple of years, Paul has not been India's No.1 goalkeeper as that position has gone to Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, who currently plays for a Norwegian top tier club.
Paul was a part of the Indian squad that played against Cambodia in an international friendly (March 22) and against Myanmar (March 28) for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers, but did not make it to the playing XI.
He played for the NorthEast United in 2016 Indian Super League season and is currently playing for DSK Shivajians in the I-League. He was awarded the Arjuna Award in 2016.
Doping in Indian football is rare. Before Paul, former Mahindra United defender Arun Malhotra (2002), Nishant Mehra (2011) and Mumbai FC's Dane Pereira (2015) had tested positive for banned substances.