James Lawton: Rio, EastEnders and the 'mental anguish' caused by FA ban

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The Independent Football

Readers of Britain's largest-selling newspaper have been given another riveting account of the human tragedy of Rio Ferdinand. However, the feeling here is that all those fair-minded people appalled at the behaviour of that jack-booted disciplinary committee towards this brilliant, sensitive young man will agree that an even wider audience should be acquainted with all the most poignant facts.

You know the basic outline of this grievous assault on all our freedoms. Rio was banned from football for eight months simply because he chose to buy new bed linen for his new mansion ­ a vital chore, everyone will surely agree ­ rather than submit to a boring old drugs test.

In a few deft literary touches Rio tells us how it is journeying all the way to hell and back.

For one thing it made him cry ­ "I'm big enough to admit that," says the victim of football fascism. There is worse. Rio lay awake at nights, for whole hours sometimes, wishing he had taken the test. And far worse still. He says ­ and brace yourself for this ­ "I can't put a number on how many occasions I have thought: 'How could I have done that?' I can even be there watching EastEnders and thinking about it." Imagine a problem so deep, and so unjustly imposed, that it can draw you away from the mesmerising rhythm of life in Albert Square. There you are speculating on the next diabolic move of someone like Dirty Den, or being lulled soothingly into the light badinage of the saloon bar at the Old Vic and, bang, the horror of your existence is suddenly with you again like a stab of toothache.

What can you do apart from murmur a thousand regrets and mourn the sheer ingratitude of the Football Association, for whom you have played many international football games at various levels? "I've worked hard for the FA in various tournaments all over the world and to be treated this way was very disheartening," writes Ferdinand. "Usually, I'm always smiling, but this has left a bad taste."

Still, there are a few positives. Rio will still be earning £50,000-or-so a week, and he says that he will be immersing himself in charity work for the NSPCC and the Prince's Trust, saying: "When you are playing you aren't able to spend as much time on these things as you would like [what, we have to guess, with shopping and discos and all those other oppressive duties of big-name football stars]. Now I can do that, so at least some good will come out of all this." There is another benefit, and Rio has dropped upon it with the sharpness of a hawk. He covers the point that football will ultimately benefit from his missed test so profoundly that a mere snippet of a quote will no longer do.

Here, for the benefit of those who do not subscribe to the Sun, is what he says: "Rules are being put in place which will never allow my situation to happen again. The drug-testing procedures will be the same whether you are at training or a match. After games the testers follow you everywhere until you have provided a sample and that will now happen at training. There is no one more against drug-taking than me and it hurts when my name is associated with it."

In view of all his suffering, perhaps the FA might have the decency to call this new formula the Rio Procedure, and in this way have it as a permanent monument to his contribution to football reform. For who else deserves credit for making the point so dramatically that some footballers are so stupid, or irresponsible, that they need to have testers adhere to them like hound-dogs right up to the dramatic moment when, in one heart-stirring flow of co-ordinated action, unfasten their flies and pee into a bottle?

It is also apparently true that Andy Cole, whose salary is not too unadjacent to Ferdinand's, complained to his professional body, the Professional Footballers' Association, because his manager at Blackburn, Graeme Souness, reacted angrily to his plan to fly home early from the team's "bonding" trip to Marbella. Why did Cole want to come home two days before his team-mates? Because he promised his wife he would babysit while she went on a shopping spree.

Sometimes you have to wonder how all this sort of thing plays with hard-working men and women who pay exorbitant amounts to take their children to football ... and for cheaply made souvenir team-shirts bearing names like Ferdinand and Cole. Maybe they choose not to think about it. Maybe they manage something beyond the persecuted Rio. Perhaps they are able to tune out with the EastEnders.

Spanish classics exposed Premiership claims

Just around the corner from Cheltenham Ladies' College one night last week, when the racegoers were again trying to reproduce some of the effects of the fall of the Roman empire, a publican had strategically placed some large colour televisions. This made it easier for everyone to see every breathtaking move in the Spanish Cup final between Real Madrid and Real Zaragoza. Or at least it should have done.

The fact was the publican, an obliging fellow, had also staffed the bar with some young ladies who would bring shock and vapours to the staff room of that nearby educational establishment. This was especially so when they performed impromptu cabaret, some of it involving the filling of delicately poised champagne glasses. Result: no more than a fleeting glance at an epic football match.

This was in one way a pity because the game - apart from producing, like the weekend duel with Athletic Bilbao, a shattering defeat for Real Madrid - was a classic example of football played with skill, pace and tremendous character.

Most noticeable, apart from the fact that both Real's opponents had obviously paid serious mind to the demands of defence, was the willingness, and even more crucially, the ability of defenders to get on the ball and play, really play. The overall impact was to make the claims of the Premiership that it is the best league in the world seem more than usually hollow.

It also made you speculate that there may be an additional reason beyond Posh's reluctance to move to Madrid for David Beckham's alleged desire to return to the English game. Becks kicked a water bucket in frustration when he was pulled off the field a few minutes before the end of the Bilbao game. He may also be yearning for the wide open spaces, and porous defences, of home.

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