Fifa president threatens life bans for drugs

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The Independent Football

Their lawyers went head-to-head over Rio Ferdinand in Bolton today, but Manchester United and the Football Association were briefly united yesterday after Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, the world governing body, once more threatened to interfere in the case.

In a newspaper column written under his own name, Blatter reiterated his threat, made in Frankfurt earlier this month, to intervene if he was unhappy with the FA's processing of the case. He also countered criticism, by United's chief executive, David Gill, of his earlier suggestion that United could be docked the points won with Ferdinand in their team while the case was pending. Gill had called Blatter's words "incomprehensible", prompting an angry Blatter to suggest that Gill "had a guilty conscience".

Ferdinand arrived an hour early for his misconduct hearing at the Reebok Stadium.

Accompanied by Manchester United director and solicitor Maurice Watkins, he met the head of his legal team Ronald Thwaites QC, to finalise preparations for the two-day hearing, which started at 11am.

Earlier, Mr Watkins and Mr Thwaites had accompanied the three-man disciplinary commission - made up of Barry Bright, Peter Heard and Frank Pattison - to United's Carrington training ground.

The trio were shown round the multi-million pound complex, where Ferdinand should have taken his drugs test on 23 September.

Yesterday, Blatter said it could be Fifa's duty to intervene in the case. He also said he was considering pushing for a lifetime ban for players caught taking drugs, with their club also being severely punished. At present the World Anti-Doping Agency's recommended punishment for a serious offence is a two-year ban. This does not apply in football as Fifa, at Blatter's behest, refused to sign up to the agreement.

Referring to his initial comments on Ferdinand, made in Dubai three weeks ago, Blatter said: "I want to make clear why I spoke out and in particular to underline my words were not the result of some autocratic whim, but of considered analysis.

"My comments on the Rio Ferdinand case - when I suggested that the player should be suspended pending his hearing and his club docked the points won in matches he has taken part in since his drug test - have proved controversial. But surely, if we condemn a player who has either refused or miraculously forgotten to take a drug test, it is not Fifa that is at fault but those directly responsible for this inexcusable omission and its aftermath; that is, the individual himself, his club, and the FA, which has not swiftly enforced the laws on the suspension of players that ought to be applied.

"If Fifa sees this sort of thing happening, it is its duty to intervene. It is the only way to make sure that the law is the same for everyone, rich and poor. Fifa cannot accept different strokes for different folks."

Blatter added: "If this type of behaviour persists we may well consider promulgating a law to impose a lifetime ban on any player caught taking performance-enhancing drugs and relegation on his club. If clubs can't control their players, who can?"

United, remembering that Gill's response to Blatter's earlier sally only exacerbated the issue, made no comment yesterday. The FA, privately exasperated by Blatter's intrusions, and aware he holds a grudge since the FA tried to unseat him, was scarcely more effusive.

"It is unprecedented for Fifa to step into a disciplinary case in England and we would expect that to remain the case," said a spokesman. "We are reviewing our procedures. We appreciate they need to be improved and speeded up but we can't change the rules and regulations in the course of the season."

This has been the FA's position throughout the case. It accepts that the current process is cumbersome but recognises, no doubt on legal advice, that it cannot change it retrospectively. It is doubtful if Fifa can either, not without inviting a successful legal challenge.

Blatter also took the opportunity to criticise the English game, and its leading clubs, for creating teams that are a "hotchpotch of nationalities". He added: "Many clubs don't deserve to be regarded as English any more because they are dominated by foreign legionnaires, whose allegiance is solely to whichever paymaster happens currently to be rewarding them to the tune of £30,000, £50,000, even £100,000 a week.

"Over the long term, I simply do not believe that 11 foreign nationals playing for an English club will captivate and mobilise fans whose average annual income is significantly lower than the players' weekly wage. By contrast, any national squad will excite the spectator."

Blatter did not offer a solution to the situation, which is backed by European law and equally prevalent in other European countries, notably Germany.