| England captain David Beckham and Michael Owen take a ride on a tractor in Hertfordshire on Tuesday. (Reuters)
London: England players arrived for training as scheduled on Wednesday, amid media reports they had voted to boycott Saturday’s Euro 2004 qualifier in Turkey in protest at the dropping of defender Rio Ferdinand.
Striker Michael Owen, still nursing a leg injury, was the only member of the 24-man squad who missed the training session. The Liverpool star is considered a major doubt for the match in Istanbul. Top of Group Seven, England need a draw to qualify for next year’s tournament in Portugal.
Football Association (FA) officials prevented England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson from selecting his first-choice central defender on Tuesday after Ferdinand failed to take a random drugs test last month at his club, Manchester United.
Though the FA said in a statement on Tuesday they had two “very amicable” meetings with England players to discuss the Ferdinand case and insisted there had been no threat of a boycott, media reports on Wednesday said the squad had subsequently voted by secret ballot not to go to Turkey.
The two sides, players and FA, were believed not to have resolved the matter and discussions between the two sides had been held before the morning training session and would continue afterwards.
British newspapers reported that the players — including captain David Beckham — voted unanimously on Tuesday night to boycott the game after Ferdinand was excluded from the squad.
The FA communications chief Paul Barber, however, said in the statement: “At no time — and David Beckham has asked me to make this clear — did any of the players at that meeting threaten to walk out of the squad”. “The meeting was deliberately set up to be a private meeting and will remain that way.”
Gordon Taylor, head of the English Players’ Union, indicated the players were serious about a possible walkout. “They were not just going to take it lying down,” he said. “They are extremely upset. We have a very difficult situation to resolve. Rio’s a colleague of theirs. They feel he has been badly treated.”
Taylor said the players “have to make their views known and hope they get a positive reaction.”
Ferdinand, who said he had forgotten about the original test because he was moving house on the same day, took a test 36 hours later and passed it but FA Chief Executive Mark Palios decided to make the player unavailable to Eriksson.
Eriksson said he could have done with a better atmosphere in which to prepare for England’s biggest game since their 2002 World Cup quarter final against Brazil.
“I hope that we are that professional that we can focus on Turkey and how we are going to play and how we’re going to work until Saturday,” Eriksson said. “It could have been a better timing of everything but there we are.”
Three other Manchester United players took the routine dope test on September 23. But under the strict rules which apply to dope-testing, Ferdinand, who claims never to have used drugs in his life, now faces a two-year ban from the game for failing to provide a sample at the appointed time.
Ferdinand said in a statement: “I want to take this opportunity to categorically state that I have never used drugs or condoned the use of drugs in sport or in society.”
The FA has come under fire from Manchester United and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) over its handling of the Ferdinand affair and the squad were reported to be seeking the defender’s reinstatement.
The PFA said it was a “disgrace” effectively to act before Ferdinand’s case had been heard, while United issued a statement saying the club was “deeply troubled” by the FA’s handling of the issue.
The FA are now waiting to see if Manchester United are planning legal action against them over the way the Ferdinand case was handled.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities plan to bar 1,000 known English troublemakers from entering the country for Saturday’s potentially-explosive match.
“We have been given a list of 1,000 hooligans. These people will absolutely not be allowed to enter the country,” Istanbul police chief Celalettin Capa said Wednesday. “Those who try to come will be sent right back.”
Capa said the list had been conveyed to airports, sea ports and border gates, and added that five British police officers would arrive in Turkey on Thursday to help identify potential troublemakers at Istanbul airport.
Turkey has set up intense security measures for the match at the Sukru Saracoglu stadium in Istanbul’s Asian corner. Capa said 5,000 police officers would be on duty both inside and outside the stadium, while riot police would be deployed in strategic spots in the city.
The FA has not taken up any tickets for Saturday’s match and has urged supporters to stay home, but British police are worried that a hard core of hooligans are determined to travel to Turkey.