Vested interests create inquiry minefield

The Repercussions

By Tim Rich
Thursday 18 December 2003 01:00

Almost three monthsafter the most publicised and certainly the most ill-advised shopping expedition to Harvey Nichols, the "trial" of Rio Ferdinand will finally crawl into court this morning.

At stake is the future of the most expensive player ever signed by an English club and, in a wider context, the relationship between the Football Association and Fifa, the world governing body, and the one between the FA and its most powerful member, Manchester United.

The Ferdinand affair, which will be examined by an FA disciplinary commission at Bolton's Reebok Stadium, has become much more than a hearing into what kind of punishment should be meted out to a player who, by his own admission, forgot to take a routine drugs test on 23 September.

The FA and its chief executive, Mark Palios, are also under pressure, if not on trial. The Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, has said he finds the delays in bringing the United defender before a tribunal "extraordinary". He suggested yesterday that, if the FA does not deal with Ferdinand with sufficient strength, it will be taken up by Fifa, who will impose their own penalties. Then there is Manchester United, whose manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, has already accused the FA of prejudging the case and targeting the club in order to "make a name for themselves".

Rarely have so many vested interests come together for one hearing. It is some minefield for Barry Bright, the 56-year-old retired estate agent who will chair the hearing, to tiptoe through over the two days it is expected to last. At the heart of the matter is FA rule 3.5, "the failure or refusal by a player to submit to a drugs test as required by a competent official". The penalties available to the three-man commission range from a fine, which was imposed on the Manchester City footballer Christian Negouai earlier this year, to a two-year ban. If the committee rules that it is "refusal" rather than simple "failure" the penalties are likely to be extreme.

Ferdinand's legal team, led bythe QC Ronald Thwaites and Maurice Watkins, a United director and a solicitor, will claim he should be treated in the same manner as Negouai, who missed a test because he was picking his mother up from an airport. The Manchester City midfielder Eyal Berkovic, who was with Ferdinand when he received the call from United's club doctor, Mike Stone, informing him he had missed the test, will testify that the England defender immediately offered to take it. When he did so the following day, Ferdinand passed.

Should the committee impose a fine, the backlash, particularly from Fifa, is likely to be unforgiving. Blatter has gone as far as to say Ferdinand should have been suspended from the moment he failed to undergo his test and that he would be in favour of Manchester United being docked the points they have won since 23 September. He said: "If we condemn a player who has either refused or miraculously forgotten to take a drugs test, it is not Fifa that is at fault but those directly responsible for this inexcusable omission and its aftermath." Blatter named the guilty men as Ferdinand himself, United and the FA "which has not swiftly enforced the laws on the suspension of the player".

Thwaites will also present character statements in Ferdinand's favour from an unlikely alliance, a Fellowship of the Rio, comprising Ferguson, the England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, and the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, Gordon Taylor.

A three-month ban has been widely trailed, not least because it would satisfy everyone. Ferguson would have him back for the climax of the Champions' League and Premiership campaign. Eriksson would have him available for the European Championship and the FA would be seen to have been tough. A cynical solution perhaps but these are cynical times.

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