Rio Ferdinand has been charged with misconduct by the Football Association after missing a drugs test.
But the Manchester United defender could still be found guilty of deliberately avoiding the test, which carries a maximum penalty of a two-year ban.
The FA has charged Ferdinand for a breach of rule E26, which refers to "the failure or refusal by a player to submit to drug testing as required by a competent official".
Disciplinary action had been expected against the Manchester United defender but BBC Sport understands the FA chose to include the word "refusal" in order to keep all options open.
A more minor misconduct charge of "failure to submit to drug testing" could have been brought against him but it appears the FA believes there may be evidence the 24-year-old deliberately avoided the test.
However, Gordon Taylor, the head of the players' union, said he understood the wording to mean Ferdinand had avoided the more serious charge.
"From Rio's point of view the charges are good news. It's certainly a lesser charge and a lesser charge should carry a lesser punishment," said Taylor.
"If it was a wilful refusal and he was found guilty the penalties are much steeper.
"But there is a danger that he could be made a high-profile example."
Ferdinand has 14 days to appeal and plans to seek a personal hearing in accordance with FA procedures.
The decision to charge Ferdinand - the most high-profile footballer in England to fall foul of the FA's drug-testing regulations - was made after more than two weeks of investigation.
The Manchester United defender failed to attend a routine drugs test at the Old Trafford club's training ground on 23 September.
Ferdinand was selected at random for a test by UK Sport's anti-doping officers but he left United's Carrington training base without taking the test.
He later claimed he had forgotten because he was moving house and successfully passed a test 36 hours later.
The incident came to light in the run-up to England's make-or-break Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey on 11 October and Ferdinand was omitted from the national squad.
There were fears his England team-mates would boycott the match in Istanbul, although they later denied they would have gone on strike and said they were showing support for Ferdinand.
The 24-year-old has continued to play for United while the FA compliance unit has been investigating the matter.
Ferdinand has since been interviewed by the FA which has also analysed the player's phone records, among other documents, to determine whether he wilfully failed to attend the drugs test.
World football's governing body, Fifa, has also been keeping a close eye on events and discussed the situation at a meeting on Tuesday.
Ferdinand's club issued a statement saying: "Manchester United notes the decision by the Football Association to charge Rio Ferdinand with
misconduct for failure to attend a drugs test."
The earliest available window for Ferdinand's hearing is likely to be between 10-19 November when there are international matches, including England's friendly
against Denmark which would not involve Ferdinand.
If it is not between those dates then a time in December, following the final Champions League group matches, would be the next likely opportunity.