Ferdinand in fight to play in Euro 2004

Manchester United defender to begin suspension on Monday as he gambles on reduced sentence opening door to Euro 2004
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The Independent Football

Rio Ferdinand has thrown his European Championship ambitions at the mercy of a three-man Football Association appeals panel.

The Manchester United defender last night announced that he intends to challenge his eight-month suspension for a missed drugs test, but crucially confirmed that he will start his suspension on Monday anyway.

In what may be interpreted as a climbdown after the aggressive tone Ferdinand and the Old Trafford camp have hitherto adopted in the four-month-long saga, the £29.3m record signing also offered a formal apology for his "mistake".

His decision is based on the acceptance that when the case is eventually resolved, he is bound to receive some kind of ban. By starting it after today's Premiership game at Wolves, Ferdinand knows that any reduction in the punishment would enhance his chances of playing for England in Portugal this summer.

Depending on whether Ferdinand's legal team offers new evidence, an FA panel could convene within a fortnight to determine the Londoner's fate. As it presently stands, the former Leeds and West Ham player will be out of the game until 20 September.

However, with Sven Goran Eriksson's side due to begin their Euro 2004 campaign against France in Lisbon on 13 June, Ferdinand knows that if his suspension is halved, he would be clear to play.

"I want to get back playing for Manchester United and England as soon as possible and if starting the suspension now will help, then I am prepared to suffer it," he said last night. "I feel strongly that I have given an honest account of the circumstances which led to my mistake and I believe that the verdict and the ban are wrong.

"I would like to apologise for my oversight in missing my drugs test," he added. "I have previously made it clear that I condemn the use of drugs in any circumstances but especially in sport and I intend to continue helping to spread this message during and after any period of suspension that I have to serve."

Old Trafford officials have confirmed they are fully behind Ferdinand's decision and will continue to back him throughout the appeals process.

A club statement read: "Whilst Rio Ferdinand accepts that he missed an unannounced drugs test, and publicly apologises for that, he continues to maintain that he did not miss the test deliberately and that he did not have any reason to avoid it."

A notice of appeal will be lodged with the Football Association on Monday, after which the governing body will set up another three-man panel, chaired by a legally qualified non-FA representative, to determine Ferdinand's fate.

The severity of the sentence dished out by the original three-man panel in Bolton on 19 December surprised most observers, who had been anticipating a three-month ban. At the time, the United director and Ferdinand's legal adviser, Maurice Watkins, described the punishment as "savage".

Opinion within the sporting world was mixed, with some, notably the World Anti-Doping Agency chairman, Dick Pound, claiming the sentence was lenient compared to most other sports, which would have handed Ferdinand an automatic two-year ban. The player's supporters pointed to the £2,000 fine imposed on Manchester City's Christian Negouai in a similar case earlier in the year as evidence that the punishment was excessive.

However, the FA's chief executive, Mark Palios, said he is determined to clean up the game, and Ferdinand is taking a risk by appealing because there is a possibility that the punishment could be increased.

Despite the threat of intervention by Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, football's world governing body, should he deem the final punishment to be too light, an increase beyond eight months appears unlikely.

What all parties will hope for is a speedy resolution to a case which dates back to 23 September and almost led to a strike by England players when Ferdinand was omitted from the crucial Euro 2004 qualifying tie with Turkey in Istanbul.

The chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, Gordon Taylor, has already led the calls for a complete overhaul of football's drug testing procedures and, in backing Ferdinand's appeal, the Manchester United chief executive, David Gill, has done the same.

"There are lessons to be learned for all of us from this episode," Gill said. "Rio recognises that he has made a serious mistake, which is why he will begin the suspension immediately rather than wait for the outcome of the appeals procedure.

"However, after studying the detailed verdict from the Commission, we are convinced the player has a strong case to challenge both the verdict and the ban, given the player's full explanation to the Commission of the circumstances surrounding his failure to take the drugs test.

"We recognise our own responsibilities in this matter and our important role in fighting the abuse of drugs in football and society at large."