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Friday, Oct. 10, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

English football's problems make mockery of 'beautiful game'


LONDON -- Had the Turkish Football Federation hatched a plan to severely disrupt England's preparations for Saturday's decisive Euro 2004 qualifying tie they could not have done a better -- or worse, depending on your viewpoint -- job than the visitors have done themselves.

Christopher Davies

Whatever the result in Istanbul, English football will never be the same following an unprecedented show of player power with the squad threatening to go on strike and a blistering criticism by David Beckham and company on the Football Association.

The players are angry that Rio Ferdinand, who failed to attend a mandatory drug test last month, was dropped from the squad.

Even the most experienced observers can remember nothing like this and with Sven-Goran Eriksson, clearly humiliated by chief executive Mark Palios' order to not pick Ferdinand, standing alongside his players the head coach's future will again become a matter of public debate.

Apart from the Ferdinand fracas, Michael Owen, England's best striker, is out of the game because of an ankle injury.

To add to the disciplinary madness, Sol Campbell appeared before an F.A. disciplinary commission on Wednesday and was handed a £20,000 fine -- one fifth of his weekly salary -- after video evidence showed the Arsenal player to have aimed a retaliatory kick at Manchester United's Eric Djemba-Djemba during the Community Shield two months ago.

Campbell's charge was mysteriously downgraded from the more serious violent behavior to improper conduct with no explanation, so the defender who had feared a three-game ban was effectively let off, making a mockery of Palios' hardline approach against players behaving badly.

All this came in the wake of stories of Premiership players reportedly involved in the rape of a 17-year-old girl at the Grosvenor House hotel in London and more recently a Leeds player, Jody Morris, arrested and held in custody in connection with an alleged serious sexual assault on a 20-year-old girl last Monday.

This was not quite the vision Pele had when he called football "the beautiful game." The English version has seen the beast not the beauty in the past week and the biggest game since the 2002 World Cup finals has almost been overlooked by the off-field scandals and player power which leaves the nastiest of tastes in the mouth.

Little surprise then, when Eriksson was asked if he could imagine a worse build-up to a match of such importance the England head coach replied: "It's difficult to find one."

England flew to Istanbul with Owen out, their two central defenders (one present, one missing) the subject of disciplinary matters while player power, boycotts, rape, sexual assault and drugs were among the main topics of conversation. Apart from that everything in the squad is fine.

Ferdinand was one of four Manchester United players selected at random to provide a sample for a routine test by U.K. Sport Doping Control Officers who can turn up unannounced at training grounds or stadiums.

Apparently, Ferdinand forgot because he was preoccupied with moving.

From time to time we are all guilty of the odd memory lapse. Had Ferdinand been asked to sign a jersey or hand his boots in for repair one could understand such relatively menial everyday matters being overlooked.

But when you are selected to take a dope test at a training ground for perhaps the one and only time in your career it is staggering that it could slip your mind an hour or so later, house move or not.

It is similarly incredible that United did not ensure all four of its players took the dope test instead of just three -- how could the club have allowed one of the quartet chosen to leave before providing a mandatory urine sample in a test tube?

Ferdinand remembered later in the afternoon -- one wonders what triggered it off . . . was he walking past a chemist, perhaps?

Two days later -- Sept. 25th -- Ferdinand took an official F.A. drug test which proved negative, but it was too little too late.

Inevitably pointed and pertinent questions were asked as to why Ferdinand "forgot" the initial drug test and the disciplinary wheels are in motion (a fine and a token ban is the most likely outcome). Palios told Eriksson, who was far from happy with the decision, that Ferdinand, who appears before the F.A. on Monday, was not available for selection.

"When it comes to things above my head I have to accept the orders," said Eriksson like a child reluctantly going to bed after being told to do so. "My opinion is not very important in this case."

Eriksson rarely shows emotions but he was clearly unhappy at losing Ferdinand while the England players voted unanimously in favor of the defender's inclusion even to the extent of threatening not to go to Istanbul.

With respect to them, it is none of their business. They are players and it is not up to them who is selected.

United and the Professional Footballers' Association both kicked up a stink saying Ferdinand had not been charged with anything, forgetting that failing to submit to a drug test (if not actually failing it) amounts to a breach of F.A. rule E26 so the player was guilty of an offense.

How would the England players have felt if Alpay, Aston Villa's Turkish defender, had behaved like Ferdinand? They and everyone else would have kicked up merry hell -- would innocence have been presumed with a Turk?

If the F.A. had not have acted by banning Ferdinand every subsequent player selected for testing could have said "Oh, I'm a bit busy, I'll do my test in a day or so." And if Ferdinand escapes punishment there will be no point in having any more drug tests in English football. The England players said Ferdinand's name should not have been made public and it is true, the F.A. has, in the past under its code of practice, kept the names of other players found guilty of a positive test confidential.

In this instance, the F.A. had little alternative than to take the stance it did. Word would no doubt have crept out (it is one thing to keep a second-division player's name out of the headlines . . . ) and imagine the uproar if England beat Turkey and it was later revealed one of the players had been involved in a drug-test controversy.

Any selection of Ferdinand would have sent out all the wrong signals and the F.A. took the best no-win choice. Drug testing is a serious business and it is carried out to detect cheats, not that there is any suggestion Ferdinand had anything to hide -- what was made public was his breathtaking naivete, forgetfulness and professional incompetence.

On football matters, which have taken a back seat this week, England will finalize its preparations to play Turkey with just three recognized center-backs in Campbell, John Terry and Matthew Upson -- between them Terry and Upson have started seven internationals.

Up front, England, which needs only a draw to qualify automatically from Group Seven, will have to do without Owen, scorer of 24 goals in 53 internationals. Emile Heskey, a Liverpool substitute in recent games known as a non-scoring striker, will probably lead the attack in a 4-5-1 formation.

No wonder there has been so much Turkish delight this week.

Amid all the Ferdinand furor, the game has almost become incidental with a growing confidence in Istanbul that Turkey, which has never even scored a goal against England, can not only break its goal duck but also secure the win to earn automatic qualification to the Euro 2004 finals next summer, leaving England to the lottery of the playoffs.



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