Rio Ferdinand in a Basque

Observations on football and drugs

With Riogate likely to enter an open-ended period of extra time for lawyers, sports administrators and assorted suits, British football fans should be grateful for one small mercy: Manchester United is not a standard-bearer for a nationalist movement that wants independence for north-west England. Otherwise, judging from a football doping scandal being played out in Spain, the chances of the FA or the courts settling the case in a way acceptable to most supporters would be zero.

The Rio Ferdinand of La Liga is Carlos Gurpegi, a 23-year-old midfielder for Athletic Bilbao, a club that has become a symbol of Basque nationalism. He tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone at the end of a match on 1 September 2002. Yet so tenacious has been Athletic Bilbao's support for his protestations of innocence - and so cumbersome the machinations of the governing bodies - that Gurpegi continues to wear his club's red-and-white-striped shirt every Saturday, despite a two-year ban imposed by the Spanish football authorities in May and confirmed by Spain's supreme sports disciplinary committee in November.

The defence case is that the nandrolone was produced naturally by Gurpegi as a result of great stress - in this case, playing in a Basque derby against Athletic Bilbao's arch-rivals from San Sebastian. The argument, dismissed as laughable by most experts, was somewhat undermined when another test found Gurpegi nandrolone-free immediately after a recent match against Real Madrid. Facing Beckham, Zidane et al at the Bernabeu in Madrid is just about as stressful as it gets.

Fans writing on Athletic Bilbao's website openly advocate burning down the football authorities' headquarters in Madrid. "I've got the petrol; all I need is your [the club's] approval," says one message.

You get an idea of why the case sparks such passions when you see some e-mails signed off with declarations of support for prisoners from ETA, the Basque terrorist group. All the club's players must now be "Basque", through place of birth, grandparentage or by having a Basque surname. This is a comparatively recent development: early Athletic Bilbao teamsheets included such un-Basque names as Simmons, Dyer, Smith and Davies.

El caso Gurpegi is now in the hands of the civil courts. Meanwhile, nearly 16 months after he tested positive for nandrolone, the player won his first "international" cap as part of an Euskadi team that defeated Uruguay in a friendly match at Athletic Bilbao's San Mames Stadium. At this rate, Rio Ferdinand could indeed miss the European Championships in 2008.

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