| Wayne Rooney trains in Hertfordshire on Thursday. (Reuters)
When the FA asked English people not to travel to Istanbul, they didn’t mean the players. The strike-that-never-was collapsed here Wednesday without 24 millionaires needing to hoist the red flag over a luxury hotel. If you want the identity of the original agent provocateur then look no further than Sven-Goran Eriksson. It was not the England coach’s old Swedish socialist background that created the problem so much as his successful onslaught against club-based cliques. By discouraging factionalism, Eriksson created the pre-conditions for the squad’s unprecedented display of militancy.
Reliable sources inside the team confirm that the players convinced themselves they were “sticking up” for a fallen brother. Their contention was that Rio Ferdinand had been unjustly sentenced before his trial and so should be restored immediately to the touring party for Istanbul.
Whatever the legal validity of that claim, senior players say there is a new ethos inside the camp. In previous eras, the national squad would have responded to such stress by splitting into independent republics — with Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool players all coming together in competing gangs. Now, they talk about “standing by” one another: even if that means disrupting the preparations for England’s biggest and most stress-inducing match since the last World Cup.
Outside the hermetic world of Sopwell House, where the squad were based, the shires were apparently spewing with indignation. If incoming messages and calls were any guide, the consensus was that these England players were borderline traitors who were holding Saturday’s match in Istanbul and the country to ransom. They were defending Ferdinand’s supposedly arrogant disregard for drug-testing procedures.
They had the national game by the throat. Mark Palios, the FA chief executive who took such an uncompromising line, had crashed into the flint wall of modern player power. This was a showdown between authority and celebrity: a test case that would determine whether the game was on a toboggan ride to hell.
The reality is a bit less exciting, less era-defining, though there are those at the FA who will never forget their collision with some of the world’s most wealthy and powerful athletes. Until now, the FA’s inclination has been to construct a sparkling stage for that fame: to bend to it and defer to its needs. Reflected glory shone in the FA’s eyes. But then along came Palios and slammed down the rule book. The table still shakes today.
Many will argue that no one has emerged with credit from this unlikely battle between officialdom and a rolling phalanx of rebellious household names. Let’s be clear: the current slap of public outrage is nothing compared to the one that will strike players and administrators alike if England are beaten in Istanbul. The one will be attributed to the other.
Certainly, it is lamentable that so much nervous energy has been expended in pursuit of a lost cause. The FA was adamant throughout that Ferdinand’s de facto suspension would not be reversed. How much thinking time was lost to the England players and coaches'
Just to break the monotony of moral lashings, we could turn this whole saga around and commend the FA for standing firm in the face of a threatened mutiny and the players themselves for upholding a principle, however misguidedly. The great cudgel used to beat the modern footballer is that he cares for nothing beyond his next contract and the engine size of his car.
Here, at least, were a group of so-called role models who were prepared to challenge a ruling they considered to be an injustice.The hole in their logic is that Ferdinand did commit an offence. The players are wrong to think that “forgetting” to supply the testers with a urine sample is an adequate excuse. Amnesia is no defence. The FA protected this principle, at great political cost. The only issue worth debating is whether they should have revealed Ferdinand’s identity and ejected him before he had faced a formal charge.
Eriksson sided with his players. He wanted Ferdinand in his back-four alongside Sol Campbell and made no effort to disguise his frustration at the political interference. This is no surprise.
Eriksson is a pragmatist. His own freedom of movement depends on Saturday’s result. To him, the fact that the FA pay him more than £2 million a year is less persuasive than the need to get England through to Euro 2004.
What we have seen this week is people fighting their own corners to the detriment of the common good. England’s flight to Istanbul will have to be divided into three cabins: not first, business and economy — but players, coaches and officials.
Outside this little Hertfordshire cauldron, the public probably imagined a seething nest of intrigue. It wasn’t like that — except, maybe, on Tuesday evening, when the players flexed muscles bigger than Popeye’s. In this world of sofas, conker trees and tea-for-two, we in the media waited for bulletins and interviewed ourselves. Few thought England’s plane would end up back in the hangar.
Not that the FA had it under control all along. The first wave of militancy had them thumbing through the Uefa rulebook in search of the clause that deals with ‘players skipping drug tests to make the removal men a cup of tea’ (Ferdinand’s excuse was that he was moving house when the testers came.) They found it all right, and a chill went through them. A boycott of the match in Istanbul would bring instant disqualification from the tournament.
Eviction is the job of hooliganism, not the players. The plane takes off, with poor Michael Owen on the tarmac. The damage, if any, will conceal itself until the ordeal of Saturday night. But remember this: the players fought, and the FA won. This hardly amounts to anarchy, however depressing it looked.