Despite having shown their willingness to act quickly on disciplinary matters by rescinding one of El Hadji Diouf's yellow cards in less than 48 hours last week, the Football Association remain hamstrung by their own rule-book in the more celebrated case of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand.
It had been obvious to anyone watching Liverpool's televised match at Chelsea that Diouf did nothing to merit a second yellow and consequent sending-off, awarded on the intervention of a linesman. Referee Steve Dunn came to the same conclusion after studying video evidence and the dismissal was annulled.
Ferdinand's eight-month ban for either failing or refusing to take a drugs test - which of the two has not been made public - was supposed to start tomorrow, and bodies such as Fifa and Dick Pound's World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) have already complained to no avail that he should not still be playing. On the day he was found guilty, 19 December, the FA made it clear they were hoping to hear his expected appeal within three weeks, so that any suspension would start on time. That proved unrealistically optimistic. The three-man tribunal took so long to write up their findings that United did not receive them until last Tuesday. Club lawyers have been studying the judgement since then, aware that under the FA's antiquated rules they still had 14 days in which to give notification of an appeal.
Even though United's Maurice Watkins said within hours of the unexpectedly heavy sentence being passed that there would be one, it has suited the club for Ferdinand to keep playing while his understudy, Wes Brown, regains full fitness. He can now stay in the side not just until the new deadline of 20 January, but until the appeal has been heard sometime thereafter.
United will take the risk of the eight-month sentence being extended, as Wada have constantly demanded in repeating their mantra that not taking a test is the same as failing one. One Danish member last week called for Ferdinand to be banned for two years, and Pound kept the pressure on Fifa's Sepp Blatter by repeating his threat that football will not be allowed at next summer's Olympics unless the sport signs up to their charter.
United's lawyers will be following with great interest the cases of two Italian league players suspended for doping offences at the end of last week. Unlike Ferdinand, Perugia's Al Saadi Gaddafi and Internazionale's Mohammed Kallon both tested positive, but received bans of only three and eight months.
The process by which Ferdinand and later Alan Smith of Leeds were omitted from the England team for disciplinary misdemeanours will be raised at a meeting in Manchester tomorrow. Gary Neville and David James, backed up by the Professional Footballers' Association chief executive, Gordon Taylor, will demand clearer guidelines about selection criteria.
England's coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, who sympathised more with the players than his employers in the previous dispute, will not be present. He has also opted out of Tuesday's meeting in Cardiff to fix dates for the World Cup qualifiers starting next season.
The FA have arranged a summit tomorrow with Fifa, Uefa and the Football League over transfer windows. The League will press their case for continued exemption from the system on the grounds that many clubs need to sell outside the windows to survive.
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- Alan Smithers
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- Performance-Enhancing Drugs
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- Sven-goran Eriksson