Boycott looms in England

ST. ALBANS (England): England's players are threatening to boycott Saturday's decisive Euro 2004 qualifier against Turkey unless defender Rio Ferdinand is reinstated to the squad, newspapers reported yesterday. 

The players voted on Tuesday night to walk out after Ferdinand was excluded from the team for failing to take a random drug test last month, according to the reports. 

The Times of London reported on its front page that the 24-man squad, including captain David Beckham, voted unanimously for unprecedented strike action. The boycott vote was also splashed on the front and back pages of the mass selling tabloids The Sun and Daily Mirror

The Football Association denied any strike vote took place. 

“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 FA said in a statement. “The meeting was deliberately set up to be a private meeting and will remain that way.'' 

BUGGY TIME: England's Michael Owen arrives in a motorised cart for England in St Albans. The English striker is bugged by a leg injury and did not join the training. He is now 50-50 for the game against Turkey. - APpic

But 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.'' 

FA chief executive Mark Palios was reportedly ready to meet with the England players yesterday at the training headquarters in St. Albans. 

The crisis centres on the FA's decision to rule Ferdinand out of Saturday's game in Istanbul. The Manchester United central defender failed to report for a routine drug test at the club training ground on Sept 23. 

The FA said Tuesday it would be “inappropriate'' for Ferdinand to be selected for the game pending resolution of his case. He has been summoned to an FA hearing next week. If found guilty of a doping offence, Ferdinand could face a ban of up two years. 

Ferdinand said he was “absolutely devastated'' by the decision to keep him out of the game and insisted he had never used drugs. 

The strike threat comes amid a myriad of problems in English football. 

London police are investigating allegations by a 17-year-old girl that she was raped by a group of Premier League players at a five-star hotel in the capital two weeks ago. No arrests have been made. 

At least one unidentified Leeds United player was arrested on Tuesday in connection with an alleged sexual assault on a 20-year-old woman a day earlier near Leeds.  

Preparations for the Turkey game have also been hit by injury problems. 

England striker Michael Owen is only 50-50 for the game, and Beckham sat out Tuesday's training to rest an injured leg. – AP  

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