Bolton Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium will in the public eye over the next few days, as it plays host to the inquiry into the Rio Ferdinand missed drug test.
The Manchester United and England defender is facing charges of misconduct and if found guilty, could be banned from football for a maximum of two years.
Ferdinand claims that he simply forgot to take the required test at United’s Carrington training ground on 23 September.
What seems to be a straightforward case has now escalated into a saga of epic proportions.
The incident sparked a row between Manchester United, the English Football Association (FA) and the the Players Union (PFA). England’s players threatened to strike after Ferdinand was prevented from playing for his country. UK Sport, the company responsible for carrying out the test, faces severe criticism, as does the World Anti-Doping Agency. The handling of the incident has also been criticised by FIFA’s outspoken president, Sepp Blatter, who has called for drug-cheats to be banned for life.
Ferdinand’s legal team includes, well-respected barrister, Ronald Thwaites QC and Manchester United’s solicitor and director, Maurice Watkins. His witnesses will include England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, former team-mate Eyal Berkovic, and United’s club doctor Mike Stone.
Ferdinand’s defence is likely to claim that the he simply forgot to report to the testing room and meet representatives from UK Sport. Rules state that players are expected to provide a sample immediately after leaving the training pitch. While United’s other stars completed their duty, Ferdinand returned to the changing room before showering and leaving the complex.
The £30m defender is said to have belatedly remembered about the test and telephoned the training ground offering to meet the testers, but by then they had already left. Ferdinand originally claimed that the appointment had slipped his mind as he was in the process of moving house. The alibi holds little water given that witness, Berkovic, confessed to going shopping with Ferdinand later that same day.
Manchester United’s club doctor tried to call Ferdinand, ordering him to return to the ground, but Ferdinand said that his mobile ‘phone was switched off. Again this claim was disproved as telephone records show that calls were made from his mobile during this period. One call was to a Stockport clinic where he had been treated for a kidney complaint.
Despite UK Sport informing the FA that Ferdinand had effectively failed the test, in-light of his refusal to take it, Ferdinand continued to play for United. In mid-October the FA asked the club to present the telephone records that proved his innocence. The club failed to deliver the records when requested and the FA accused the club of deliberately delaying proceedings.
Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, then engaged in a bitter war of words with recently-appointed FA chief executive Mark Palios, claiming that his star defender was being victimised and had been hung out to dry. While Ferdinand continued to play for his club, the English FA decided to omit him for England’s squad for the vital Euro 2004 match against Turkey.
The FA was duly criticised by coach Eriksson and felllow members of the squad, with players threatening not to play the game against the Turks.
Ferguson’s decision to play Ferdinand, and the FA’s failure to prevent him playing for United, attracted strong criticism from Sepp Blatter. Blatter was unaware that the defender was still playing club football despite facing an inquiry. He warned that FIFA would flex its muscle if tthe FA’s punishment was deemed to be too lenient.
Blatter argues that a player should be suspended when awaiting trial, and suggest that if he continues to play then the club should be docked points.
“If FIFA sees this thing happening, it is its duty to intervene,” he said.
Palios, however is confident that FIFA will not get involved.
He said: “We are applying the rules and regulations we have and it will be entirely unprecedented for FIFA to intervene in the way suggested.”
The case has already claimed it first casualty before the inquiry begins. UK Sports’ head of ethics and anti-doping Michele Verroken, is expected to resign from her post. Verroken broke confidentiality rules by naming Ferdinand. After a meeting with UK Sport Chairwoman Sue Campbell she has been relieved from her post which she has held for 15 years.
Gordon Taylor, the PFA chief executive, was outraged by Verroken’s actions and has threatened to withdraw support for the company’s testing procedures.
Taylor placed the blame for the exposure of Ferdinand firmly at Verroken’s door, despite the fact that he, Manchester United and Ferdinand’s agent, Pini Zahavi, had all confirmed the identity of the player.
UK Sport has acted quickly to avoid losing the contact with the FA. The company completed more than 1,200 tests last year costing the FA £360,000.
Ferdinand’s trial coincides with the news that a Chinese footballer has tested positive for ephedrine. The case is the first of its kind in China and Zhang Shuai of Beijing Hyundai could be banned for up to four years for taking the banned substance.