LONDON — Eric Cantona’s record ban of eight months is unlikely to be beaten, but sometime Friday a Football Association disciplinary commission will decide whether Rio Ferdinand is guilty of “the failure or refusal to submit to drug testing as required by a competent official.”
Cantona was handed an eight-match suspension by the F.A. after the Manchester United striker attacked a spectator as he left the pitch following his sending off at Crystal Palace in January 1995.
Ferdinand’s punishment is expected to be around three months, but listening to Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, you would think the defender had merely forgotten to pay an electricity bill.
“There could be personal and justifiable reasons why he did not take the test,” said Taylor. “Rio did not refuse, he forgot,” said Taylor though having a dreadful memory hardly seems a justifiable reason for not taking a drug test.
Can you imagine Sir Alex Ferguson showing understanding if Ferdinand had “forgotten” there was a game and did not turn up at Old Trafford?
Taylor talks about Ferdinand being hung out to dry and found guilty before any trial, forgetting — it’s contagious — that Ferdinand IS guilty of not taking a test, having left United’s Carrington training ground before providing the necessary urine sample.
It is a question of sentence nothing else.
“Rio Ferdinand has never tested positive for drugs,” said Taylor. No one has suggested this is the case and the player eventually passed a test 36 hours after his initial attack of absent-mindedness.
The fact is Ferdinand did not take a mandatory drug test. but his lawyers, as lawyers do, will try to find a loophole in the doping rules and regulations.
The hearing, which began Thursday, will include much legal argument around the difference between failing to take a test and refusing to take one and Taylor believes the PFA should have been involved in the initial process.
“Of course he should have taken the test,” said Taylor. “But the fact they [UK Sport] didn’t ring us is a problem. We would have got hold of him to take him to a hospital to be tested.”
UK Sport’s policy states that “athletes must conduct a test as soon as possible and certainly within an hour of being notified of selection.”
United does not come out of this very well. How could it allow a player selected for testing to leave the training ground without completing the test?
Four players were chosen on Sept. 23, three went through the protocol of testing, but Ferdinand did not.
It has taken three months from the initial forgetfulness to the case being heard and while the F.A.’s disciplinary system could never be accused of being fast, some believe United has delayed proceedings to wait until Wes Brown — who would replace Ferdinand in defense — is fit after a long-term injury.
There is enormous pressure on the commission to hand out what is seen as an appropriate punishment, one that fits the crime and acts as a deterrent for future players with dodgy memories.
Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, has taken a hands-on interest in the case and Taylor feels a fair trial is impossible given the publicity which has surrounded it.
Perhaps the biggest problem for lawyers representing the F.A. — effectively the prosecution — will be when they are cross-examined by Ferdinand’s legal team, led by United director Maurice Watkins, in the wake of the admission by executive director David Davies that, “it would appear to some of us that the processes were not introduced for people who fail to turn up for tests . . . we have not looked at what happens when someone fails to take a drug test.”
Simon Tracey, a leading sports lawyer, believes Ferdinand may not even have a case to answer.
The Sun, with whom Ferdinand has a regular column, reported that after leaving the training ground the player made contact at 2:02 p.m. only to be told he was too late, yet the testers did not leave until 2:27 p.m.
Tracey said: “If Rio offered to come back to the training ground and UK Sport said ‘don’t bother’ there is a persuasive argument to say, regardless of the timing involved, that he didn’t fail to take this test.
“If that is what happened then the case is one big mess and a finding of willful refusal to take the test is wrong.”
A three-month ban would enable Ferdinand to regain match fitness for Euro 2004 next June, but the suspicion is that whatever the verdict and sentence, the arguments, both moral and legal, will continue for a while.