Keith Vaz, the MP for Leicester East and a former government minister, yesterday offered to act as a guarantor for the release on bail of three Leicester City footballers held this weekend in a Spanish jail on rape charges.
His intervention came as officials from the football club flew to Spain yesterday with their lawyers in a further attempt to negotiate bail.
Lawyers said yesterday that the case may well drag on for months, leaving the struggling club without key players as it fights a relegation battle and the loss of millions of pounds if it slips out of the Premiership.
Keith Gillespie, the Northern Ireland international, Frank Sinclair, who plays for Jamaica, and the team captain Paul Dickov were remanded in custody on Friday charged with "sexual aggression with penetration" following an incident at the luxury La Manga training complex in southern Spain. They are currently sharing the same cell at Sangonera prison, near Murcia.
Three women, who live in Germany, claimed that they were left with multiple injuries after several players broke into their hotel room at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in La Manga and attacked them.
Initially nine players from the struggling Premiership club, who were on a mid-season training break, were arrested. Six have since been released and returned to Britain, one, Steffen Freund, without charge. Danny Coyne and Nikos Dabizas, questioned over breaking and entering and failing to help the women, have been provisionally released. Three players, Matt Elliott, Lilian Nalis and James Scowcroft, face charges of failure to assist someone in need. Scowcroft also faces charges of breaking and entering and has been ordered to pay £13,000 bail. All the players vehemently deny the charges.
Their case has been taken up by Mr Vaz, who has written to the Spanish judge, Pilar Perez Martin, to vouch for the players, who face up to 14 years in jail if convicted.
Mr Vaz, a season ticket holder, said yesterday that the players were internationally known and could not disappear, so should be granted bail.
"What we want to avoid at all costs is them remaining in custody for a period of time until any trial is concluded. I am sure they will give bail as I will be happy to act as a guarantor," he said.
The future of the players is likely to remain uncertain for the rest of the season. Lawyers in Cartagena said it would be a matter of months before the presiding judge wrapped up investigations and decided whether the case merits a court trial.
"It's impossible to know, now or even in the short term, when that decision will be made. We simply don't know who will be brought to trial or if there will be a trial at all," said Ana Ruiperez, who is currently leading the defence.
Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association, said clubs and the PFA have abdicated their responsibilities towards players in failing to tackle the drinking culture in the game.
He said: "Some English players have argued that they have the right to go out and enjoy themselves in licensed premises in the town centre. I argue the opposite. I feel that because they are highly paid athletes they don't have that right. They have an obligation to keep away from them, to not expose themselves to the risk."
* In a survey on the website www.footballfanscensus.com of more than 1,000 fans, carried out in the wake of the Leicester City scandal, 65 per cent said they thought the behaviour of modern players was either poor or very poor.
The young: anger at their idols
Dressed in his Leicester City kit of blue shirt, white shorts and blue socks, 12-year-old Emile couldn't hide his disappointment at the behaviour of his idols. "Everyone's talking about it at school," he said with a sigh. "It's sad. When you watch the players on the pitch, you wouldn't think they would do anything like that. You think they're reliable."
Yesterday afternoon, among the joggers and dog-walkers, Leicester's Victoria Park was dotted with groups of children and teenagers having impromptu kick-abouts. All were doubtless dreaming of emulating their football heroes on the pitch - but furious at their alleged behaviour off it.
Emile, a season ticket holder at Leicester's Walker Stadium, said: "I really like Paul Dickov, so I'm very disappointed in him if there's any truth in all this." His friend Zak, also 12, added: "It's a disgrace to Leicester City and to the fans like us who support them."
Elsewhere in the park, some fans criticised the players' lifestyles. Fourteen-year-old Chetan, wearing the black and white stripes of Juventus but a regular visitor to Leicester's ground, said: "They shouldn't be going out drinking and being naughty. They should be concentrating on the game. They could make it up to the fans by trying harder to stay in the Premiership."
Leicester currently lie second from bottom in the table and haven't won in their last 15 games. Jakub, 18, who moved to Leicester from the Netherlands two years ago, could barely contain his anger towards the heroes of his adopted city. "It's stupid, man," he said. "We want to be footballers, we want to be like them and then this happens. They've let themselves down."
His friend Iraad, 20, agreed. "These players have got families," he said. "They've got wives and children. How could they do this? And now we've lost three key players when we really needed them."
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