The Football Association's disciplinary processes operated so slowly that an avalanche of comment swept over a sacrificial lamb on Friday evening. Rio Ferdinand was ill served by the mass of attention his case attracted in the interminable weeks since it appeared to a disbelieving public that football's major players and their mighty employers might need to be brought back to reality with a sharp dose of medicine.
The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, coined a neat phrase when, during his prolonged onslaught on the FA for its tardiness (which, it should be recalled, was not helped by Manchester United's refusal to attend an informal meeting when the issue was first raised), he said Fifa could not tolerate "different strokes for different folks".
Why, then, has Fifa, which was so anxious to pronounce judgement on Ferdinand that it had a new anti-doping committee standing by ready and waiting, not brought to bear the immense knowledge of its medical experts in the doping case of Athletic Bilbao's Carlos Gurpegui, which has rumbled on for more than a year? Gurpegui, a 23-year-old midfielder, scored both goals in Athletic's 4-2 defeat at Real Sociedad on 1 September 2002, but it was not until December that it was announced that he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid nandrolone. The Spanish FA suspended Gurpegui for two years in February, then provisionally lifted the ban on appeal in April.
Athletic argued that the positive test had been caused by natural production of the hormone nandrolone by the player rather than by ingestion or injection of substances contrary to the rules. Tests carried out on the player before and after a match against Valladolid indicated increased levels of the nandrolone hormone.
Despite engaging scientists from the University of Extremadura, they faced increasingly sceptical hearings. Although the supreme Spanish sports disciplinary commission overturned the Spanish FA's renewed ban, a full hearing of this body last month confirmed the original two-year ban.
Its head, Guillermo Jimenez, went so far as to say that a negative test given by Gurpegui after Athletic's match at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid on 1 November blew a hole in his defence, because, if he generated nandrolone naturally, surely a stressful match such as that would produce a positive reading? Jimenez went on to castigate the Bilbao head of medical services, Sabino Padilla, for allegedly injecting Gurpegui with the human growth hormone, HGC, in order to try to demonstrate his endogenous production of nandrolone, and threatened a points deduction for use of a banned substance.
Athletic began legal action on 3 December after Gurpegui had missed three matches, and the court reinstated his player's licence in view of the damage his career would suffer if he won the eventual case, with a full hearing to take place at a later date.
UK Sport received a progress report on nandrolone from a committee of expert scientists in February, which concluded that there was as yet no definitive method for distinguishing urinary metabolites arising from the administration of nandrolone from those arising from possible natural production of the hormone. Although the use of new carbon measurement techniques might produce information that would assist with identifying the source of a metabolite in a urine sample, the method was still insufficiently refined to be able to provide the necessary analytical results.
Michele Verroken, who sat as an ad hoc member of that committee, is on extended leave from her job as head of UK Sport's anti-doping unit. At a meeting in London hosted by the British Association for Sport and the Law on 11 December she had what can only be described as a terse exchange with the chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Dick Pound, when she stressed that athletes were entitled to a right of appeal.
Pound alone believed Ferdinand got off lightly, which indeed he did by comparison with offenders in other sports. But the fact that he is a rich young man with a tendency to be forgetful does not make it fair or just for the FA to use him as its marker for a new trial of strength with the powerful clubs. A few months ago, Manchester City's Christian Negouai was fined only £2,000 for precisely the same offence.
The eight-month suspension and £50,000 fine imposed on Ferdinand represents a wholly disproportionate penalty and must, in my view, have been influenced by Blatter's interventions and his recent conversion to the notion that the game is unclean. UK Sport's figures of so-called positive tests should be examined very closely before jumping to such conclusions about any sport.
Whether Ferdinand's appeal, to be heard by two fresh FA council members sitting with a QC in the new year, will conclude this sorry matter is doubtful.Reuse content