Sir Alex Ferguson has regularly been accused of trying to pull his players from International games so that they are in peak condition for the club, but he has long denied this and instead claimed he was happy to see his players representing their countries. You can see logic in this, as long as we’re not talking about pointless friendlies. It can only be seen as a good thing for our players to surround themselves with the best from their country and have the experience of competing on the big stage. You can only imagine what good it did Javier Hernandez’s confidence, having just turned 22-years-old, when he scored against Argentina and France at the World Cup, for example.
However, when players start getting on a bit, there definitely appears to be a shift in the club’s attitude, with the likes of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes retiring early to extend their United careers. Since giving up playing for Wales, Giggs has won three Premier League titles, a European Cup and two League Cups, whilst Scholes can boast the same, with an added league title in 2007. The benefits of International football disappear for Ferguson once the player reaches 30, but instead increase the likelihood of injury and mean extra games that could shorten their club careers.
Lots of our players get a kick out of representing their country though, so whilst plenty of the fans may be of a clear club over country mentality, it’s daft to expect all players to feel the same way. I’d much rather they knocked it on the head when they hit their 30’s but if it’s something they still get some fulfilment out of, then fair play to them.
However, when it comes to Rio Ferdinand, his relationship with the FA is different to our other players and their countries. You see, our other players, who happen to be the best in their position for their country, aren’t treated like shit by their football association.
Let’s go back to 2005 when the FA banned Rio for 8 months for missing a drugs test. Missing a drugs test should obviously be treated the same way as failing a drugs test but Rio’s case wasn’t as simple as that.
Before training, he was told along with two other players that he would be tested for drugs after training. Training ended and Rio flew off to town, where he was pictured shopping. According to newspaper reports at the time, at 2.02pm he remembered the drugs test and called the club to ask could he return to complete it. The testers told him he was too late, however they didn’t leave Carrington until 2.27pm, which would have left him with more than enough time to get back to the training ground. UEFA’s website confirmed that Rio had asked to take the test on the same day but was told it was too late. An important point to mention is that drug-test procedures do not have a time limit so there was no reason why the testers couldn’t have waited, given the implications of what him not taking the test were. Rio was tested for drugs at their next convenience, the following day, and that test came back negative.
Before Rio’s ban and fine had been announced, PFA chief Gordon Taylor was confident, like many, that there would be no problem in clearing the defender’s name, after the evidence that confirmed Rio’s plea to take the test before the testers had left was rejected.
“If I was representing the FA and they asked me should it go ahead, I would say that unless they can mount an emphatic challenge to this evidence it should not,” he said. “We don’t want to sweep anything under the carpet but the case is now far from cut and dried. It is clear the testers should have stayed. Not enough was done to ensure Rio took the test on that day. It is not good enough to just leave when he was prepared to make it back.”
After Rio’s unprecedented punishment was handed out, Rio offered to have a hair follicle test, which would have given results for the past 6 months, dating before his original test date, but the FA declined his request.
The MEN reported at the time: The FA does not appear to dispute Ferdinand’s claims that he has never taken drugs – they have not listed him for target-testing, which would be the usual procedure for any player suspected of being a drug user. And their refusal to get involved in hair follicle testing is further evidence that they do not question Ferdinand’s claims that he is drug-free. They maintain the punishment is for his failure to take the test alone.
So the FA banned a player for eight months not because they believed he had taken drugs, but because he forgot to take a test and the people who were meant to test him wouldn’t let him return for the test whilst they were still at the training ground half an hour later.
Years went by and Rio was still one of the best defenders in Europe and was rewarded by being made captain after John Terry was stripped of the honour after having an affair with the mother of one of his England team mate’s children. Wayne Bridge had been selected for previous squads and was set to go to the World Cup as back up for Ashley Cole but pulled out as he felt his position was untenable with Terry there. The FA did nothing and were quite happy for Bridge to pull out and for Terry to play. It would be interesting to see if the FA’s stance would have been the same if it was the mother of Rooney’s child that Terry had been having an affair with, and Rooney that had pulled out of the England squad, instead of the second choice left-back…
Less than a year after being named captain, Rio had the armband taken away from him, and England manager Fabio Capello didn’t even bother to tell him. Capello spoke to the newspapers and, without confirming his decision, basically said Terry was going to be reinstated because of Rio’s injuries. Six games had been played since the World Cup and both Rio and Terry played in four of them. It reminded me of when Robbie Savage claimed that he was going to move to Blackburn from Birmingham so he could be closer to his family in Cardiff. If you’re going to make up a bullshit excuse for why you’re going to do something, at least make sure it’s true first!
Capello then came to Old Trafford to watch United play Bolton but didn’t make any formal arrangements to meet Rio, despite telling the press he intended to “talk to” our player then. Capello never met Rio and that evening announced that he was no longer captain. Despite having done nothing wrong, neither the FA nor the England manager had the courtesy to talk to Rio and explain the decision, which is in direct contrast to the meeting Capello organised with Terry to take the captaincy from him after he had been sleeping with a team mate’s missus.
Two years later, Terry was charged with racially abusing Rio’s brother, Anton Ferdinand. It was clear that both Terry and Rio could not be in the same squad together so newly appointed Hodgson had a choice to make. He chose the player with an allegation of racist abuse over his head, not the player whose brother had been racially abused, and claimed “footballing reasons” were behind Rio’s omission. It was nonsense. Ferdinand had enjoyed a great season for the team that finished on the same points as the champions, having played 38 games, yet Cahill, Terry and Lescott were all picked ahead of him. Stranger still was the inclusion of Phil Jones, Rio’s understudy at United, with Chris Smalling unavailable through injury. Cahill then picked up an injury so Liverpool’s Martin Kelly was drafted in to the squad. “What reasons??” Rio asked on Twitter and he was spot on.
England went to the Euros, they were crap like always, and they returned only for Terry to be found not guilty, or not proven as they would call it in Scotland. Howard Riddle, the chief magistrate, said there wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Terry was guilty, although pointed out that there were huge question marks over Terry’s defence, which essentially hung on the claim he thought Anton first accused him of calling him a “black cunt”, leading him to repeat the accusation.
Riddle said that Anton was deemed to be a “believable witness”, that it was “inherently unlikely that” Anton accused Terry of calling him a “black cunt”, and that Terry’s explanation was “unlikely” as it was “sandwiched between other undoubted insults.” The most damning statement of all came towards the end of the summing up: “In the FA interview, Mr Terry was asked ‘can you remember what you said to him?’ and replied ‘I think it was something along the lines of ‘you black cunt, you fucking knobhead.’ The Crown say this represents a true statement. It was a slip by Mr Terry. It is evidence of his guilt. Certainly it is a very significant statement. It may well represent the truth.”
Following the court case, it was then the job of the FA to see if he was guilty and should be punished. Terry, who had been allowed to play for England despite having an allegation of racism hanging over him, claimed the FA made his position untenable and retired from International football before the independent commission found him guilty. They used the evidence available from the trial but also other evidence that the chief magistrate had not been made aware of.
In their conclusion they claimed it wasn’t just “highly unlikely” that Anton accused Terry of calling him a “black cunt”, but that in fact he did not accuse Terry of that, because in the brief time that it took Anton to advance up the pitch towards Terry, there was no reason for the focus of Anton’s insults towards Terry to have changed so quickly from an allegation of an affair, to one involving skin colour, or race.
They also concluded that there was no way Terry or Ashley Cole heard, and could not have believed, understood or misunderstood Anton to have used the word “black”, or any word that might have suggested that he was accusing Terry of racially abusing him. They said there was no credible basis for Terry’s defence that his use of the words “fucking black cunt” were directed at Ferdinand by way of forceful rejection or inquiry. Instead, they were quite satisfied on the balance of probabilities that the offending words were said by way of insult.
Whilst Cole was seen as a credible witness in court, the independent commission were privy to evidence the chief magistrate hadn’t seen. Cole had changed his statement to support Terry’s explanation for why he could be seen on camera shouting “fucking blacking cunt” at Anton. In his interview with the FA five days after the game, Cole claimed that he thought he saw Anton using a “B” word when rowing with Terry, which he said could have possibly been “Bridge”. Cole said that “B” word was being used at the same time as Anton was making a fist-pumping sexual gesture. This would tie in with what both Anton and Terry claimed, that Anton was having a pop at him because of his affair with Bridge’s ex. The day after Cole submitted his statement, Chelsea’s club secretary, Dave Bernand, e-mailed the FA saying Cole wished “to add the words ‘Black or’ before the word ‘Bridge'”, despite the word “black” not being uttered once by Cole in his interview.
The chief magistrate had not been made aware of this statement change but it was enough for the commission to decide Cole was not a reliable witness. In a case about racism, it did not make any sense that Cole would have seen Anton possibly shout the word “black” at Terry, but not mention it in his interview with the FA. It also did not make any sense that when making a sexual gesture, as Cole claimed Anton was doing, that he would be making an allegation of racism at the same time. Cole’s first account, before consultation with Bernard, reflects a likely version of events. Anton was having a pop at Terry about him shagging Bridge’s ex. This lead to Terry racially abusing him.
After this was made public by the FA, that Cole had seemingly added “black” to his testimony to suit Terry’s defence, people (including Cole) took to Twitter to react. One person tweeted Rio and called Cole a “choc ice”, having altered his statement to help a white person be cleared of an allegation of racism against someone who was mixed race. Rio, foolishly, responded to this with: “I hear you fella! Choc ice is classic hahahahahaha!!”
The independent commission decided this comment was “improper and brought the game into disrepute.” Some Chelsea supporting morons then claimed it was Rio that was racist (someone who believes that other races are not as good as their own and therefore treats them unfairly), and whilst this obviously isn’t true (and impossible, given that both Cole and Rio are mixed race), it was criticism he opened himself up to by laughing at the remark made by someone else about Cole. Whatever Rio thought about Cole changing his statement to help Terry get away with racially abusing his brother, he needed to keep those discussions out of the public eye, not on Twitter for all to see.
Terry was out of the way, having spat his dummy out and retired when he realised the FA were probably going to ban him from representing England again anyway, but Cole was still involved in the England set up. Hodgson was in a difficult position because if he called up Rio again now, just a few months after leaving him out of the Euros, it would be obvious to all that it had been nothing to do with “footballing reasons”, rather a preference for the man who had just been found guilty by the FA of racially abusing another player.
So in October, when Hodgson was travelling on the tube for an Arsenal game, some fans asked him what was going to happen with Rio. The England manager told them that his England career was more or less over, that it was the “end of the road” for him and England. These fans had pictures and videos and reported back to the press, much to Hodgson’s embarrassment, but more importantly, Rio’s embarrassment.
“Rio could do the job for England, there’s no doubt about that, but I don’t see why he should,” Ferguson said that week when asked about Hodgson’s comments. “He should concentrate on his career here, that’s what I’d prefer.”
Going back to the initial point, that Ferguson would be happy to see our players over 30 retire from International duty, some people have accused the United manager of damaging Rio’s international career. Ahead of Hodgson selecting his squad for the Euros, Ferguson suggested that Ferdinand would struggle to play every four games, which is obviously what would be required for an international tournament. However, despite Ferguson making these comments to the press, Hodgson has never cited this as a reason for Rio’s omission, despite facing lots of criticism for the decision. Still, if that was a reason to keep him out of the squad in the past, that reason would still stand today. The smallest gap between games this season, where Rio has played 90 minutes in both, is five days which has happened on just one occasion. Rio has played in 26 games this season, but by this time last season he had played in 28 games. If the “footballing reason” was managing the number of games he played, it would make no sense to call him up now.
However, Rio has been in great form this season and following two superb performances against Real Madrid, the press and neutral fans have been raving about him, deciding that he should certainly be involved in the England set up again. It is seemingly easy for these people to forget that Rio was in great form last season too, before being snubbed by Hodgson, but he didn’t have a high profile game at the Bernabeu to prove it then. For whatever reason, it’s seemingly accepted by some that whilst it is likely Rio was dropped because of Hodgson’s preference for Terry, that there is some validity to the claim Rio could have been left out for footballing reasons last season. Lescott had a good year for City and your opinion on who was better between him and Rio probably depends on whether you’re a red or a blue. But Cahill and Terry weren’t superior to Rio last season, whilst Jones and Kelly certainly weren’t. Just because Rio is England’s best performing centre-back this season doesn’t change the fact he was in the top two last season. Even if you allow a militant Chelsea fan in on the action, who would likely argue Terry had a storming season as Chelsea finished 6th, there’s surely no one who could claim Cahill was more worthy of a place in the squad than Rio was.
If the “footballing reason” was to do with age and looking to the future of the squad, then Lampard, Gerrard, Barry and Parker all should have found themselves sitting at home too, whilst inferior but younger players (from Liverpool) took their spot in Hodgson’s team.
So, either Hodgson believes enough time has gone by that he can pretend the reasons for leaving Rio out last summer were valid, and nothing to do with him having to make a choice between him and Terry, and choosing the wrong one, or he’s given in to increasing pressure from the press and fans. Neither reasons are good enough for Rio to consider playing for England again though. Just like Sven couldn’t see the value of Scholes, if Hodgson can’t see how good Rio is, then more fool him. England’s loss is our gain. Rio has been disrespected time and again, so he needs to put his foot down and tell Hodgson where to go.
However, Rio is desperate to play for England and after being wrongly forced out, you can understand why he might want to pull on the shirt again. Hodgson has claimed he hopes that Rio rekindles his friendship with Cole, referring to Cole’s statement change and Rio’s response on Twitter as “an unfortunate incident”, although it’s hard to imagine that happening.
Reports today suggest that despite wanting to play for England, Rio has been put under pressure by the club to withdraw from the squad and effectively end his international career. In Ferguson’s press conference yesterday he talked about how surprised he was and stressed the need for them to talk to the club doctor about how best to manage Rio’s appearances for club and county.
We are likely to find out one way or another after the Reading game, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if Rio announced his retirement from international football, citing “footballing reasons” as the motivation behind his decision, because he wanted to concentrate on playing for United for as long as possible? Maybe that’s petty but it would be just what the FA deserve after the shoddy treatment they’ve dished out to one of the best defenders England has ever had. Tell ’em where to go, Rio.