I’m not going to lie, these past 17 months have been pretty rough.
Today, back on the pitch, having proven my innocence, I feel like I can breathe again. I will never forget the struggles I faced getting here, but at least, I can now move forward, starting by clearing my name. Most people read headlines and come to their own quick conclusions. People forget things are not as black and white as they appear to be. My name has been tainted and the only way I can clear it, is by sharing my truth.
On the 26 March 2017, I dutifully and serenely provided a sample to NADO, Malta’s National Anti Doping Organisation. I resumed my work as a professional football player without a second thought to the test. After all, I knew I had done nothing wrong. What I would come to learn, on that fateful day on the 24th April 2017, is that sometimes, being innocent is not enough. I was informed I had tested positive to ‘ostarine’ a prohibited substance, one I had never heard about before. I asked for the B sample to be tested. I was certain there must have been a mistake. When the B sample test came out positive as well, I knew I would be facing a tough road ahead.
I embarked on some research and discovered that an illicit substance might have made its way into my system via contamination of vitamins or supplements. At the time I was taking Vitamin C, Fish oil, Glucosamine and Protein, to ensure a well-balanced diet. I sought out guidance from those whom I deemed most able to provide me with answers, considering their role: NADO. After all, they were supposed to be Malta’s Anti Doping experts. I wanted to test the substances in question and I wanted to make sure tests were run at a recognised lab. NADO advised me to test the Protein, since according to them, it held a high probability of contamination, while the others bore no risk of contamination. I had no reason to question their advice, so I moved forward as suggested. I chose a lab from a list given to me by NADO themselves and paid.
I waited anxiously for the results, and finally on the 30th May 2017, I was informed that the protein had in fact tested positive for contamination. It was bittersweet news. On the one hand I now knew why I had tested positive, on the other hand I still had to face repercussions.
On the 17th July 2017, I received the date for my hearing. The following day, on the 18th July 2017, I received an email from NADO informing me there had been a misinterpretation of the results and that the Protein had not in fact been contaminated by ‘ostarine’. I was in a state of shock. I had followed NADO’s advice to the letter. I had tested the supplements they told me to and in a lab on their list. How could the results suddenly, and only a few days away from my hearing, change so drastically? Lost and without sufficient time to do anything, I faced my hearing. The decision to ban me for 4 years came out on the 25 September 2017.
The situation was bleak and I felt hopeless but spurred by the need to prove my innocence I forged ahead. I filed for an appeal in front of the Court for Arbitration of Sports (CAS) and sent all my supplements to a laboratory in the United States. On the 24 March 2018, the laboratory informed me that contamination was due to the Glucosamine, a substance NADO told me I need not test since according to them it bore no risk of contamination.
To further strengthen my case, and to ensure that contamination was through no fault of my own, a sealed bottle of the supplement with the same batch number was tested, and contamination was confirmed.
In the end, all the findings were sent to CAS, but while I waited for the hearing, NADO offered a settlement agreement. Since I wanted to leave this nightmare behind me as soon as possible, I accepted the settlement. I agreed to a 6-month suspension, but since I had already been out of action for 17 months, I was allowed to join my club immediately.
And so, my arduous journey drew to an end. This journey, this rollercoaster, would not have ended happily, had I not had the unwavering support of my girlfriend Daniela Bugeja, the steadfast trust of my club Valletta Football Club, especially Alexander Fenech and the ongoing help of personal physical trainer Karl Sciortino. No words can ever express my immense gratitude towards them.
On Sunday 16th September 2018, I stepped onto the pitch again and relief washed over me. For an instant, it felt like it had all been just a bad dream, that the past months had never happened. But deep down, I know I am not the same player I was 17 months ago. I faced hopelessness and overcame it. I challenged an injustice and prevailed. I am not the same player. I am stronger.