Ferdinand may face lengthy ban after FA charge

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Rio Ferdinand could face a lengthy ban for his infamous missed drugs test after the Football Association charged the Manchester United defender with misconduct yesterday. Contrary to reports that Ferdinand's charge was the lesser of two options available to the FA, the governing body had only one charge at its disposal - that of misconduct - but chose to bring it for "failure or refusal to take a drugs test".

Crucially, the FA's statement includes the word "refusal", which indicates that it thinks there could be an element of wilfulness in Ferdinand's behavior. If the FA had believed that Ferdinand's misdemeanour had not been deliberate the charge would simply have referred to a "failure to submit to drug testing".

Ominously for Ferdinand, it is understood that when Manchester City's Christian Negouai missed a drugs test earlier this year, his case was treated as a "failure" to take a test, not a "refusal". The Frenchman still faced a misconduct charge, but convinced the disciplinary commission he had been unable to make his appointment after going to the airport to meet someone and then getting stuck in traffic coming back. Negouai was given a £2,000 fine. He was also told he would be "target tested" at random intervals until Christmas.

Ferdinand's advisors and Manchester United had planned to use Negouai's case to seek similar treatment for the England centre-back. Indeed, they were still under the misapprehension immediately after the FA's statement yesterday that Ferdinand was facing some lesser charge. It seems certain now, however, that the FA will dismiss any arguments about Negouai's case setting a precedent. In that case there was no evidence of the player deliberately missing the test. The statement from the FA indicates the FA's suspicion that there is evidence in Ferdinand's case.

The only reference within the FA's rules to potential punishments for a first breach of the anti-doping regulations is that a player faces a maximum ban of two years. It is within the powers of the disciplinary commission who will hear Ferdinand's case to hand out any punishment up to that maximum. That could include a ban of less than two years, a fine, target testing or all three. If Ferdinand is found guilty of "refusal", a ban seems likely although because the player did not actually fail a test, that ban would be at the lower end of the scale, perhaps a few months. There is no known precedent ­ not one that has been made public in England ­ for such a finding after a first offence.

Ferdinand has 14 days to respond to the charge. United said in a statement: "The player will be responding to the charge and seeking a personal hearing in accordance with FA procedures."

The FA must now find a suitable date for a hearing. The earliest window would appear to be between 10 and 19 November when there are international matches, including England's friendly against Denmark which will not involve Ferdinand. The likely alternative would be some time in December, following the final Champions' League group matches.

Yesterday's charge arose because Ferdinand missed a random test on 23 September at United's Carrington training ground, although he subsequently passed a rescheduled test 36 hours later. The FA did not bring the charge until yesterday because it was considering all the evidence, including Ferdinand's mobile phone records. It has become apparent that his mobile phone was switched on during the afternoon of 23 September, which raises questions as to why he did not respond more quickly to messages from United telling him he had missed his test.

The FA said Ferdinand had been charged in relation to Regulation 1(c) of its Doping Control Regulations. "Regulation 1(c) refers to 'the failure or refusal by a player to submit to drug testing as required by a competent official'," the FA's statement said.

Fifa, football's world governing body, said it will wait to see what action the FA takes before deciding whether to impose any punishment itself. Fifa believes in a hard-line approach to stamping out drug abuse.