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Last Updated: Saturday, 20 December, 2003, 10:58 GMT
How the FA must change
By Tom Fordyce

The conclusion to Rio Ferdinand's missed drugs test hearing does not mark the end of the Football Association's troubled times.

The Ferdinand affair is just the highest profile of a number of recent cases which have highlighted the glaring weaknesses in the FA's disciplinary procedures.

The current system's critics - and they are plenty of them, from Arsene Wenger to England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson - feel that existing practices are:

  • too slow - a player sent off on a Saturday cannot be suspended until a fortnight later at the earliest
  • open to abuse - clubs can use the appeal process to delay players' suspensions until a more favourable time, while Premiership players are untroubled by fines that amount to a fraction of their monthly earnings
  • legally weak - anti-doping guidelines are far more obtuse than in sports like athletics and swimming

FA chief executive Mark Palios cannot be blamed for the situation, having inherited it from his predecessors.

But he knows that wholesale changes are necessary and, as a result, has formed an internal inquiry which is expected to recommend a series of sweeping changes this summer.

Sebastian Coe narrows his eyes
Coe's expertise on anti-doping will be key to the FA

Among those who will contribute are former Olympic 1500m champion Sebastian Coe, highly regarded for his anti-doping expertise, and Eriksson himself.

"I will say what I think because we are creating trouble for ourselves," said Eriksson, who was shocked that Chelsea's Joe Cole had to wait eight months to be banned for a misconduct charge incurred while playing for West Ham.

"In Italy punishments are dealt with swiftly," said the England coach.

"If a player gets a red card he is sentenced on the Tuesday. If he requests a personal hearing it's dealt with on the Thursday.

"The Rio Ferdinand situation went on for 10 weeks; it is far too long. It is the system that is wrong. It is no good for the game, it is no good for the player."

Coe is also forthright about the necessity for change.

"There isn't the same culture within football as there is within sports like track and field and swimming, where we've lived with it (drugs cases) for 25 years," Coe told the BBC.

"There are issues about the way the tests have been done in the past in football. What those of us looking at the FA's procedures will have to make a judgement about is the speed of the process, the chains of custody, the protocols.

"It is fair to say that it is a problem when a test that was not taken in September is still being dealt with at Christmas."

Warnings and bans

Pre-Rio English football was seen as an easy touch when it came to doping.

Last season, Rushden & Diamonds goalkeeper Billy Turley was let off with a mere warning after being found to have taken the anabolic steroid nandrolone.

Compare this to the situation in Serie A, where Inter Milan's Mohamed Kallon and Parma's Manuele Blasi have already been banned after testing positive for nandrolone in September.

Kallon and Blasi failed their tests in the same fortnight that Ferdinand failed to take own his test. But while the England defender's case dragged on for three months, the Inter players were dealt with almost immediately.

Two players from each side are dope-tested in Serie A after every match, while in England a player has a less one in four chance of being tested at all in an entire year.

"Changes are welcome," says Arsenal boss Wenger. "I would say that opinion is shared by everyone who works in English football."

England players push for change

Then there is the issue of selection for the national side. At the moment the FA refuses to select players undergoing disciplinary matters, even if no charges have been laid.

Hence the decision to exclude Ferdinand from the England squad before the Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey and the dropping of Leeds striker Alan Smith from the squad to face Denmark last month.

Both Eriksson and the England squad have made it clear that they consider this practice a disgrace, reasoning that a man should be innocent until proved guilty, as he would be in a court of law.

Palios must balance the urge to keep his coach and celebrity players happy with the need to clean up the game's increasingly tarnished image.

At the same time he must reform an organisation that is still stuck in the mid part of the 20th century.

It is a task so momentus that the chances of a happy Christmas at FA headquarters in Soho Square are slim, to say the least.

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