Leeds 'outraged' as Fifa hands Viduka five-day ban

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The Independent Online

If there is one Premiership club who could do without a costly scrap with Fifa, football's all-powerful world governing body, it is Leeds United. But much like the comedic knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail, who defiantly insists "I'm invincible!" even as his arms and legs are being chopped off, they have gone vociferously to battle anyway.

Leeds' holy grail is Premiership survival, and one of the main weapons in their armoury - and the reason for their war - is Mark Viduka, their joint highest scorer this season. Yesterday Fifa banned him from playing for Leeds for five days at the request of the Australian Soccer Association, who invoked Fifa's five-day rule governing international call-ups. Viduka had failed to report for duty for Australia's friendly against Venezuela in Caracas on Wednesday. Leeds had pleaded he be excused because of injury and personal reasons. Viduka's punishment means he will not be eligible to play at Old Trafford tomorrow as his side hunt for points to drag themselves from the relegation zone.

Leeds' chief executive, Trevor Birch, who has been pre-occupied with the small matter of saving the club from financial oblivion in recent months, reacted furiously to Fifa's edict. "What's happened is an absolute disgrace, it's an outrage," he said. "The survival of Leeds United is in jeopardy and we have this, all for the sake of a Mickey Mouse game that took place at the other side of the world. Where is the justice in that?"

In a scathing official statement, Leeds separately announced that they are "taking legal advice and will explore every available avenue in seeking to redress this potential injustice".

Privately Leeds concede that any such action will fail and they are unlikely to waste much of their time or scarce resources on litigation. Viduka will not play against Manchester United this weekend barring an astonishing U-turn by Fifa - which is about as likely as Leeds qualifying for next season's Champions' League - and Leeds know it.

The sense of injustice burns fiercely, however, and Birch may well exploit it to motivate the Leeds players. "Mark has given a lot to Australia and I can honestly say there is no one more loyal towards the cause than Mark," he said. "I would fully understand it if he told them where to stick international football now. They don't deserve someone like him."

Such unequivocal words about a player who some fans not so long ago considered less than committed, show Birch will do and say whatever it takes to keep Leeds buoyant, whatever the odds against him.

The Leeds statement said: "This decision has shown a complete lack of understanding and compassion towards Mark, whose father Joe is still critically ill over in Australia and to Leeds United, who, given Mark's personal circumstances, had no hesitation in granting him unlimited compassionate leave [earlier this year].

"Furthermore, having not trained for three weeks whilst in Australia, Mark complained upon returning to Leeds of pain in his lower back and tightness in his hamstrings... It is difficult to understand why such a hard stance has been taken which does not appear consistent with that for those of other players who, for whatever reasons, did not travel to Caracas."

The ASA allowed Liverpool's Harry Kewell and Blackburn's Brett Emerton to miss the game after accepting they were injured. They took a tougher line with Scott Chipperfield of Basle, who missed the game after becoming a father last week. He will also serve a five-day ban.

The ASA defended its stance by saying that while it was sympathetic to Viduka's personal situation, it had noted he had played for Leeds twice since visiting his father. "Furthermore, ASA is not satisfied that Mark has sustained an injury which would have prevented him taking the field in Caracas. ASA is committed to the principle that Australia should field its best possible team at all times and that those players selected should make themselves available."

Viduka said he was "extremely disappointed" with the ASA's decision but denied suggestions he had considered retiring from the Socceroos, saying that was "never an option".

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