The eight-month ban imposed on Rio Ferdinand by the Football Association for missing a random drug test could have repercussions far beyond the Manchester United defender himself. All players could be caught up in the fallout as Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the players' union, has threatened to sever relations between the Professional Footballers' Association and the FA.
Taylor is considering withdrawing his support from a number of joint initiatives with the FA, including the drug-testing programme itself. "Bearing in mind what has happened over the last two days, I would have to say our relationship with the FA is in danger of breaking down completely," Taylor said. "The governing body appear to be operating in a vacuum, and if that is the case we will have seriously to consider our co-operation with them over a range of issues.
"What happened to Rio Ferdinand confirmed my worst fears. The FA have responded to outside pressure and hung Rio out to dry. I don't think there has been a penalty as strict as this one for non-compliance in any sport. They are making up policy on the hoof - how can that be justice?"
In fact, other sports have far more stringent rules and punishments, which is why complaints over the ban have provoked puzzlement from the international level of the game and from outside football. Nick Davies, the media director of the International Association of Athletic Federations, said: "If it had been an athlete it would have been a two-years ban - not an eight-month suspension."
And Rob Faulkner, a spokesman for European football's governing body, Uefa, said: "From a Uefa disciplinary standpoint, our view would be that this type of offence would carry at least a six-month ban, so it is in line with what we would expect to happen if the player had failed to take a test during a Uefa competition. Our guidelines state a minimum of six months for a first offence, so from our point of view it would seem appropriate."
Where Taylor and Manchester United do have strong grounds for dissatisfaction with the ban is in questioning the independence of the FA disciplinary panel which imposed the penalty. The FA stress that no one on the panel works for them, but Mark Palios, their new chief executive, made it clear he intended to take a strong line on any drug issues that arose.
Taylor said: "The FA say the panel is independent, but it is no more independent than if the PFA had put three people up to sit on the panel. The commission was made up entirely of people from the FA to act on the FA's behalf. The chairman was the same man who in May this year fined a Premiership player £2,000 for similar non-compliance without any suspension at all. Now we have someone receiving an eight-month ban and a £50,000 fine. You can see the anomaly straight away. Even if the player had tested positive for a social drug the penalty would not have been as heavy as this."
However, in the other case Taylor refers to, Manchester City's Christian Negouai responded to calls for him to return to City's training ground and took the test within the stipulated hour, and when Mark Bosnich, then Chelsea's goalkeeper, failed a test for cocaine, he was given a nine-month ban. Barry Bright, the Kent FA representative on the FA Council, sat on the panels that judged all three cases.
Taylor's deputy, Mick McGuire, believes that Ferdinand could not have expected a fair hearing once his name had been made public, as it was after he was omitted from England's squad for the Euro 2004 qualifying match against Turkey. He said: "We got involved for no ulterior motive but a concern that there was fair play and he got a fair hearing. Our big concern was that there would be confidentiality, because if it came out there would be so much hype it would make it difficult for there to be a fair hearing."
McGuire also questioned the clarity of the FA's procedures. "Rules and regulations are put in place so that people know what they are going to get," he said. "The regulations might allow for a two-year scope but we're not talking about someone who has failed a drugs test, we're talking about somebody who missed a test."
In other sports, missing a test is seen as the same as failing one, but they make tests more difficult to avoid. Testers calling on, for example, a swimmer or an athlete for a random test stay until the competitor has done the test. There is no question of allowing them to wander away, or of there being a time limit to produce the required urine sample. McGuire thinks more could have done more to prevent Ferdinand from leaving United's training ground at Carrington before he was tested.
Ferdinand has a right to appeal within 14 days. Once any appeal has been heard, world football's governing body, Fifa, would almost certainly apply Ferdinand's suspension to all competitions worldwide as their president, Sepp Blatter, has been outspoken on the need to combat drug abuse. That means that if the ban stands, Ferdinand will miss the equivalent of an entire season, including the Champions' League, plus Euro 2004 and the start of England's World Cup campaign. Ferdinand appears to have little to lose by appealing.Reuse content