Chelsea launched a fierce attack on the Football Association last night, claiming it had been "weak" on drug issues after Adrian Mutu was banned from football for seven months and fined £20,000 after being found guilty of taking a banned substance.
The 25-year-old striker, sacked by Chelsea last week for using cocaine, should be free to resume playing, as a free agent, from 18 May next year, as long as he completes a "programme of education and rehabilitation". His suspension includes the period already served under an interim order, which began on 25 October.
Yet yesterday's announcement could be a mere precursor to a lengthy and bitter legal battle in which Chelsea try to stop the Romanian reviving his career. Chelsea believe they have the right to stop Mutu moving elsewhere, despite dismissing him, until they have been compensated for losing his services.
Sources say Chelsea intend to seek damages either from the player himself, who cost £15.8m from Parma last year, and/or from any club which attempts to hire him once his ban is complete. Such an extraordinary move would be unprecedented in football. Chelsea feel they can force an interested future employer to pay what would effectively be a transfer fee. The club's insiders claim that Fifa rules will allow it.
In a statement released last night by Chelsea, the club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, said: "Chelsea is extremely disappointed with today's verdict. We believe it is far too lenient and sends out the wrong message about drugs in football. It is also indicative of a lack of direction within the FA at this time.
"As a club we can only take the action we believe is right for Chelsea. However, the FA has a much wider responsibility to look after the interests of the game as a whole and in this case we believe it has shown itself to be weak over the issue of drugs."
A spokesman for Fifa, football's world governing body, said last night that he knew of no previous case when a club had sacked a player and then sought damages. He said Fifa had not been approached by Chelsea about the matter and could not comment until that changed. Both the FA and the Premier League, who control the transfer of player registrations, feel that as soon as Chelsea sacked Mutu, the club relinquished any claim on him. Any legal action would therefore pit Chelsea not only against the player but the authorities.
Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said he understood that Chelsea would indeed ask the FA and Fifa to put an indefinite hold on Mutu's registration, but was scathing of the club's approach.
"You can't have it both ways - you can't sack someone and then ask for money for him," Taylor said. "That's Chelsea trying to make up the rules as they go along. Mutu's got a support structure around him, the football family, and Chelsea have opted not to be part of that at a vulnerable time for the player.
"It's fine for them to have a zero-tolerance policy and take the moral high ground but trying to stop him playing would be against his basic rights. It's a restraint of trade and there's no provision in FA, Premier League or Fifa rules for them to do that. We would resist it.
"The player has chosen to undergo rehabilitation and get his career back on track and he is now doing that outside of Chelsea."
Mutu's ban will apply worldwide provided it is endorsed by Fifa, which usually requires a minimum six-month suspension for such offences. The FA will request Fifa endorsement, which should be a formality.
Mutu's agent, Gheorghe Popescu, said the FA's decision yesterday "has opened the doors for Mutu's comeback in normal life and through high-level soccer too.
"Mutu has had a few terrible weeks, which has helped him to became mature," Popescu said. "He's watching his own past with different eyes. I can tell you that he was very critical of himself and you'll see a different Mutu after 18 May 2005." Popescu appeared confident that Mutu was a free agent already. "He can move to another club even from tomorrow," said Popescu. "Now it's our duty to find him the shortest way to become even stronger than he was." Mutu has the right to appeal against his punishment although he indicated before yesterday's hearing that he would not do so.
Another of Mutu's agents, Victor Becali, said: "We're not worrying about Mutu's future. We already received proposals from four clubs for Mutu, even without knowing his ban yet. Two of them are from England." Mutu's ban is a month shorter than that handed out to Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand last season for missing a drugs test. The comparative harshness of Ferdinand's ban was because the FA did not want to give players an incentive to miss tests.
Mutu has already started his rehabilitation at the Sporting Chance Clinic, run by the former Arsenal and England captain, Tony Adams.
The player has also received support from his national association, with Romania's coach, Anghel Iordanescu, saying he will keep his captain in his plans, "to [make him] feel that he is still part of [the] national team of Romania".
Chelsea's aggressive stance ensures peace is unlikely any time soon.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: Suspensions for drug-related misdemeanours
1991 15-month ban (cocaine). Recently had cardiac treatment
1995 10 games (cannabis). Now with Newcastle
1999 Six months (nandrolone). Now plays in Qatar
2001 Eight months (nandrolone, served four). Now with Internazionale
2002 Ten months (nandrolone, served four). Now with Milan
2002 Nine months (cocaine). Looking for a club
2002 Six matches (cocaine). Now playing for Veracruz in Colombia
2003 Eight months (missed test). Still with United