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Friday, Dec. 26, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

It's time for Premier League players to grow up


LONDON -- A former footballer once confided to me that after his retirement he and his wife decided to go on the dream holiday they had never been able to take while he was a leading international.

Christopher Davies

The problem was, he had no idea how to go about booking the vacation. While he was playing everything -- almost literally -- had been arranged by his club. Travel, hotels, tickets, visas, passport, insurance . . . all the things that most people in the non-football world do every year without too many problems.

Players are molly-coddled and looked after like children, simply turning up at an airport and, hey presto, here's your passport (most clubs keep players' passports) and ticket. They are shown to the check-in desk, then a VIP area and then onto the plane.

So how did Manchester United allow Rio Ferdinand to leave its training ground on Sept. 23 before taking a drug test? A club that organizes the lives of its players could not ensure he provided a urine sample after training, which is hard to believe.

Ferdinand was handed an eight-month suspension by a Football Association disciplinary commission and as the dust settles on the verdict -- the story will run and run -- there are still more questions than answers.

United must surely have known that the absent-minded Ferdinand might have "forgotten" to take the test, as he claimed -- so why didn't it ride shotgun until the necessary sample had been satisfactorily produced?

If anyone comes out of Riogate worse than the player, it is United, whose arrogance and belief it is above the law are mind-blowing.

A team of highly-paid lawyers was employed to find loopholes in the testing procedures. Ignoring the fact that Ferdinand -- 25, but with the memory of a three-year-old -- apparently failed to take a mandatory drug test, United has set about proving "innocence" by a legal loophole.

What message does that send out? Break the law, employ a good lawyer and you'll be OK.

Perhaps significantly, United personnel has been fortunate to escape several motoring charges in recent years, including one employee getting off driving down the hard shoulder of a motorway because he had a bad stomach and had to find a toilet. As you do.

United and Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, claimed that Ferdinand had been found guilty before a trial. That is because he was guilty -- it was not a question of failing a test, simply failing to take one.

United is facing the prospect of paying Ferdinand £2 million in wages for not playing until September, but will explore every avenue possible to have the ban, due to start on Jan. 12, reduced.

It has asked the F.A. for written clarification for the reasons behind the sentence, though civil action is not a realistic possibility under FIFA statutes.

Apart from an appeal to the F.A., which could be a double-edge sword because the punishment could be increased, the Court of Arbitration for Sport based in Switzerland would be the most logical step for Ferdinand to take to have his perceived injustice corrected.

Matthieu Reeb, secretary general of the Court, said: "Assuming the parties would like to submit this matter to a neutral panel, I think the Court would be the right choice.

"One arbitrator would be appointed by each party with the chairman by the Court itself. The panel would hear the arguments from everyone and then make a decision which is binding like a judgment in a civil court.

"Rio could ask for a reduction in the suspension or to be exonerated. The panel would deliberate and decide if this was possible or confirm the decision which is now in place."

Was eight months fair or excessive? There is no comparable precedent, but media opinion in England has generally been in agreement that the punishment was fair.

Except the Sun newspaper, which, coincidentally, has a six-figure contract with Ferdinand and is a lone voice in saying their boy has been hard done by.

The newspaper's tactics have been shameless and last Monday they ran an "exclusive" that Ferdinand said the verdict "hit me like a thunderbolt."

The "exclusive" seems not to have come from Ferdinand, though, but from someone on the Sun who, when told the player could not comment on a sub-judice matter, decided that this was what their boy would have said. Hours after the paper hit the news stands Ferdinand's solicitor was on the phone to the Sun.

Continuing their campaign, the paper then ran a story saying Peter Heard, one of the three-man commission who sat in judgment on Ferdinand, was not "independent."

Heard, the Sun said, is a co-founder of a company that was hired to find the F.A.'s new offices in Soho Square. The Sun said that, "there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the company in their dealings with the F.A.," but then stated "the business seriously undermines Heard's so-called independence on the panel."

Make up your own mind what the implications were. And then make up your own mind on the Sun's role in Riogate.

THE TRANSFER window reopens on Jan. 1 and it will be interesting to see how much money changes hands.

Of the 71 players who moved in England last January, only six commanded fees.

Loan deals will no doubt once again dominate the market, though Chelsea will be linked with just about every top player in the world.

What money there is must not be wasted and Birmingham manager Steve Bruce will no doubt warn against buying a player on recommendations or their record.

Last August, Birmingham paid Rosario Central £2.5 million for Luciano Figueroa, the leading goal scorer in the Argentine League.

On Tuesday, Figueroa's contract with Birmingham was canceled by mutual consent, with the striker set to join Mexico's Cruz Azul for an undisclosed fee.

An undisclosed fee usually means the selling club is embarrassed by the amount, and, as Figueroa played only three minutes of Premiership football as a substitute against Portsmouth in September, it is safe to say he has been one of the most expensive players ever in English football.

Sources say the undisclosed fee meant a loss of around £1 million on the original deal, and, as Figueroa's signing bonus plus wages probably totaled the same figure, his three minutes of fame worked out to around £650,000 per minute.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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