One club wants to use a gene-test to spot the new Ronaldo. Is this football's future? Screening could help teams looking for talent · UK Sport has 'no power' to prevent use of technique
This article appeared in the Guardian <http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian> on Saturday April 26 2008 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/apr/26> on p3 of the Top stories <http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/apr/26/mainsection/topstories> section. It was last updated at 00:37 on April 26 2008.
For decades the task of identifying emerging football talent has been considered an art rather than a science, exclusively the preserve of wise old pros and sharp-eyed scouts and dependent on a large slice of luck. Now, however, it seems leading football clubs are turning to cutting edge laboratory techniques to aid their search for the next David Beckham. According to a leading sports scientist, at least one football club has explored the possibility of using genetic screening to separate prospective Ronaldos from those destined to join the Sunday morning hackers on Hackney Marshes.
Dr Henning Wackerhage of the school of medical sciences at Aberdeen University told the Guardian that a professional club had made contact with him about the possibility of screening players to discover whether they have a genetic predisposition to athletic excellence.
Wackerhage prepared an academic paper earlier this year highlighting experiments that had produced enhanced physical performance in mice and rats, and the possibilities offered by gene doping and screening for enhanced athletic performance. He has since suggested that it might be possible to produce the human equivalent of a formula one car by using genetic mutations. His research was picked up by the unnamed club, which got in touch hoping to exploit nascent gene-screening technology, already freely available in Australia, which tests athletes for a number of genes considered indicative of top-level performance.
"A football club was interested in doing genetic testing of athletes," he said. "It was a genetic performance test. My advice was that there are questions of legality with an employer doing genetic tests on its employees. They wanted to conduct a test that is specific to genetics."
Australian company Genetic Technologies offers a A$100 (£47) test that claims to identify whether customers have the fast-twitch muscle function gene ACTN3, which is found in leading sprinters.
There are other genes associated with athletic ability including PPARdelta, which governs slow-twitch muscle growth; IGF-1, which controls human growth; and genes that regulate erythropoietin, a hormone that affects the production of red blood cells.
Finding and developing players who will help clubs win titles and reap large profits on the transfer market is the holy grail of football development. Manchester United's achievement in developing half a team of international players in the shape of Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary and Phil Neville is the benchmark for talent identification, and English professional clubs spend £50m a year trying to achieve similar success.
Wackerhage said he was not in favour of using the screening method but said the technology had potential. He also gave a speech earlier this month suggesting that genetic modification could reduce the world record for the marathon, currently just over two hours, to 90 minutes.
"The aim of the talk was to highlight the fact of genetic research on mice and humans. It shows why there are different natural variations in sporting ability," he said. "The mice are made to be different because their DNA is changed. Sometimes it doesn't cause disease but leads to fitter specimens, better storage of glycogens, a massive heart etc. The idea of the talk was as a thought experiment that would consider combining all the mutations to see if you got a superathlete."
Huw Jennings, youth development manager at the FA Premier League, said screening could have a role to play in identifying athletic talent but was unlikely to establish whether youngsters would make the grade as professional footballers.
"While you may be able to identify athletic ability, the road from promising youngster to top professional is far from smooth, and it doesn't necessarily follow that talented athletes will become talented footballers," he said.
UK Sport, the body that governs drug testing in Britain, said it had no power to prevent clubs using genetic screening on players as it was not prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency.