Conflict persists as diplomacy kicks in

The Ferdinand affair
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The Independent Football

After the recriminations, the conciliation. From a position overzealously interpreted in some quarters last weekend as a state of war over Rio Ferdinand between the Football Association and Manchester United, who were said to be happy to see each other in court, the tone in the past week has been noticeably calmer.

Hence the immediate announcement at the start of the week by the FA's chief executive, Mark Palios, that it was "time to move on", followed by the news that Old Trafford had been chosen as the venue for next month's England friendly against Denmark. The provocatively aggressive move would have been to select Manchester City's stadium for the first time; instead, United's is rapidly becoming an ersatz Wembley, to the financial benefit of both parties.

The reality amid the supposed sabre-rattling was that the FA's director of marketing and communications, Paul Barber, had spoken to United's chief executive, David Gill, at length even before the Turkey game eight days ago. "We agreed that the relationship between Manchester United and the FA was broader and deeper and stronger than one issue," Barber said. "It's very important for United as the biggest club in the world and the FA to be seen to be working together in the future." So please have another international, Mr Gill (the second in succession and fourth since England became a travelling band; Anfield and Villa Park have staged two each, and no other ground more than one).

There are still, of course, differences of opinion. Gill insists "there is no moral dilemma" over Ferdinand being chosen for United until such time as he may be banned. The FA, in contrast, made a moral judgement that he should be excluded from the match in Turkey, Palios choosing to make the fine distinction between the association's position as guardian of the England team and as the sport's disciplinary body: "Some people have questioned whether we have at any point stepped outside our due process for disciplinary decisions. I can confirm that we have not. Our decision to exclude Rio was a policy decision in our role representing 'England team' affairs and was not part of the formal disciplinary process." He went on to emphasise, in a letter to staff at Soho Square: "The crux of this matter is not about disagreements between major footballing bodies, it concerns the importance of the FA's anti-doping programme and the FA's right to govern the game with integrity."

The importance of the anti-doping stance reflects pressure being brought to bear by the Government and Fifa, who are in turn being leant on by the International Olympic Committee and the World Anti-Doping Agency. Hence the unexpected intervention in the debate last week by the world football governing body, which does not bode well for Ferdinand. Michel D'Hooghe, the official in charge of Fifa's anti-doping policy, was quoted as saying that the United player had to be punished, and that if the FA (who have still not charged him) were not strict enough, then Fifa would impose their own sanctions.

Only two years ago, Fifa claimed they could not intervene in disciplinary decisions taken by member countries. Since then there has been a dramatic change, designed to bring football into line with other sports far more seriously afflicted by performance-enhancing drugs. Even 12 months ago, after the IOC president, Jacques Rogge, visited Fifa headquarters to discuss the matter, the latter's Sepp Blatter was still holding out against the proposed Wada code, because of doubts over its legality and questions about the sovereignty of sports bodies.

At the Wada conference in Copenhagen earlier this year, football finally agreed to sign up in principle - under threat of being dropped as an Olympic sport - but remained rightly concerned about such draconian measures as failing to take a test being the same thing as testing positive, and automatically incurring a two-year ban. "You have to give someone who is found guilty the chance to defend himself," Blatter argued. "No court in Europe would sustain a decision which is arbitrarily taken for two years."

He has insisted on a clause covering "exceptional circumstances", which have still not been precisely defined. Fifa's interpretation was that "a wide range of exceptional circumstances may influence the duration of the sanction imposed, which may vary from a warning to a life-long ban".

But the noises coming out of Zurich last week suggest that Blatter now wants to be seen to be cracking down. Then there is the pressure from the British Government, one of 72 to sign up to the Copenhagen agreement. Richard Caborn, the Sports Minister, and a supporter of London's 2012 Olympic bid, is aware that no country neglecting the code has a hope of staging the Games, and is also on record as saying that funds for sports bodies should be conditional on adhering to it; a polite form of blackmail that the FA, in their difficult financial circumstances, cannot afford - in any sense - to ignore.

One of Palios's predecessors at the FA, Graham Kelly, wrote in The Independent last Monday that: "Caborn's slavish adherence to the totalitarian philosophy of the World Anti-Doping Agency is not relevant to this dispute". Rio Ferdinand, for one, must hope it does not become so, or he will have all the time in the world for buying Easter eggs at Harvey Nicks, let alone Christmas crackers.