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Lazaridis in limbo

Former Birmingham and West Ham winger Stan Lazaridis has finally been cleared to make his comeback in November after a 12-month drug ban, but he's still forbidden from training with his club Perth Glory in the A-League.

Nor can he take part in any of Western Australia's local leagues or, incredibly, even watch his teammates in action.

The 35-year-old ex-Socceroo remains in footballing limbo even though an Australian anti-doping tribunal gave him the shortest possible suspension - 12 months - after he tested positive for a banned substance he'd been prescribed for hair loss last year.

'It's a ridiculous situation and very unfair for a team sport player,' a Perth Glory insider told me. 'Stan isn't a track and field athlete who can easily train by himself. He needs to be with his teammates.'

Last month, a Football Federation Australia (FFA) anti-doping tribunal accepted that Lazaridis was only taking finasteride, which can also be a masking agent, to treat the condition alopecia, which results in dramatic hair-loss and skin irritation.

But the same authorities said they needed further submissions before deciding if the left-sided player can resume training before his back-dated ban expires on November 27th.

By that time, Perth will have just seven more matches in the A-League's regular season - more if they make the playoffs - starting with a December 2nd home clash against reigning premiers, Melbourne Victory.

It's the latest twist in a frustrating return home for one of Australia's most popular players, well-known for his outgoing personality and fondness for practical jokes.

Nicknamed Skippy, Lazaridis played for more than a decade in England's Premier League and the Championship, with 69 games for West Ham United and 191 for Birmingham City.

Lazaridis left the UK in the middle of last year for what promised to be a glorious swansong for the Socceroos at the World Cup, followed by a new chapter as the marquee player for his hometown club in the A-League.

But despite being a regular starter in the 2005 Confederations Cup under Frank Farina, Lazaridis was one of six squad members not to be given game time by Guus Hiddink. The Dutchman reportedly had doubts about how Lazaridis, just two months short of his 34th birthday, would stand up to the physical demands of the tournament.

Lazaridis told Melbourne's Age newspaper in a 2006 interview: 'I think Guus and (assistant coach) Arnie made the right decisions for all the games, barring Italy. I felt if ever there was a World Cup game where Stan Lazaridis could have come on with maybe 20 minutes to go and run at the opposition, it was that (second round) game.'

Soon after Germany, Lazaridis was back home in Perth, unveiled as a returning home-grown star, set to terrorise defenders with his renowned speed, overlapping runs and pinpoint crosses.

But, troubled by a groin problem that he may have first injured while playing for Birmingham in the Premier League a couple of years earlier, Lazaridis was a disappointment, appearing in only 11 games without scoring a goal.

Then came the positive test.

He started taking finasteride on November 15th after being told that official Australian approval under the Therapeutic Use Exemption was a mere formality. But a series of delays in getting the green light to use the drug meant the Lazaridis was technically in breach of FFA rules when he returned a positive test on November 27th.

In support, Brendan Schwab of Australia's Professional Footballers' Association, said the levels of the drug used by Lazaridis were much smaller than those needed to be an effective masking agent for steroids.

The case was heard in May but it took three months for the verdict to come through.

Although he faced a maximum two-year suspension, the FFA tribunal gave him half that, while adding that it would consider a lighter sentence if there was a way of avoiding a mandatory 12 month ban for any doping infraction.

Lazaridis hasn't commented publicly on his case but has, understandably, gone through a whole range of emotions. A month before the verdict was known, Perth coach Ron Smith instructed his star player to return to training, albeit by himself.

'He's gone from being at the absolute depths of depression to feeling a little more optimistic,' Smith said in a July interview. Not surprisingly, the uncertain status of their marquee player threw Smith and the Glory's plans into disarray, contributing to their A-League struggles last season.

Now, with just a few months left on what could be his final professional contract, Lazaridis has been thrown a life-line.

'It will be difficult for him after so long out and not being allowed to train with the rest of the team,' the Perth insider said.

'But he just wants to get fit and be ready and prove everyone wrong.'


* Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is a host for Soccernet SportsCenter and Sportscenter on ESPN.


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