The John Terry case probably should never have come to court, but this does not mean football, and particularly the FA, can relax. There is much that is wrong with the game, particularly the way the game is administered. The FA and, for that matter, the clubs, need to answer some hard questions and take a very long hard look at the game, and in particular, what they teach players about how to behave on and off the field.
It is matter for sober reflection that such a thought would have been unthinkable at the beginning of last season. But events since then have indicated that, for all the success of the Premier League, there is an undergrowth there that is far from pleasant, let alone one that could be a beacon to the rest of the world.
The problem with this case was that it acquired a sort of tabloid version that had nothing to do with what allegedly happened at the now infamous QPR versus Chelsea match. So the question was never whether Terry was racist. That was not the charge he faced and indeed, even the prosecution did not for one moment suggest he was racist. The prosecutor’s case was that Terry, in an altercation with Anton Ferdinand, and goaded by what Ferdinand had said, had flipped and used language that could be considered racially aggravating. Terry denied this and the magistrate was convinced that Terry was right. The FA has said it will now conclude its own investigation. Given the FA burden of proof is the balance of probability, and not the higher beyond reasonable doubt used in criminal cases, it will be interesting to see what conclusions it comes to.
But while it deliberates, we need to look at what the case revealed. It revealed that a great deal of sledging goes on during football matches. Surprise, surprise, you say in derision. That goes on in all sports. And players taunting eachother about their sexual liaisons, which Ferdinand did, is not unusual.
However, if we are to believe stories that sportsmen have told us over the years, it goes in with a certain style and finesse. As, for instance, the Sri Lankan World Cup winning cricket captain, Arjuna Ranatunga, telling his Australian counterpart, Steve Waugh, how much he enjoyed spending the night with Waugh’s wife. Of course it is fiction, but it is a tool to unsettle the opposition.
However, here it is clear that this was more than just sledging. This was brutal language of the sort even men in battle might shrink from. It was close to the language boxers use before a fight. But then, that is part of a very specialised sport, where two men who have no quarrel with each other nevertheless get into a ring to trade blows. The language is necessary, as many boxers admit, because they need a pre-fight hype to make sure that the fight is presented in such lurid terms that enough people buy tickets. That can hardly be the case in football a game where players are encouraged to shake hands before a game, and also where the ball is kicked out of play when an opposing player is injured so he can get treatment. From the throw-in, the opposition is expected to give possession back, and on the one occasion this did not happen and lead to a goal, the Arsenal manager was so shocked he insisted the FA Cup match be replayed.
But as the court case demonstrated, there is a vicious use of language and gesture which belies such a high moral tone.
And this is where we come to the nub of the problem. What do clubs do to educate their players, not just how to play better, but how to behave better? It is interesting to reflect that this question of club responsibility also came up in the Luis Suarez case. Recall he was heavily punished by the FA for using the word Negrito when clashing with Patrice Evra. The comments of Paul Elliott, Chelsea’s first black captain, on this were very illuminating.
This is what he told me: “If you look at the composition of the Premiership players, the majority are now foreign players. When I went to Italy and played there back in 1987, I was told about processes, the customs, what was acceptable, what was unacceptable. I was educated. Before the matches. They went out of their way to talk to me. They sat me down, the manager and the president. We haven’t done that. What I feel is, generally, when players come into this country, they have to know the boundaries. They have to know what is acceptable, what is unacceptable. So first and foremost, there’s an onus on that employer to do that because you have a contract of employment. Liverpool should’ve done that with Suarez.“
But if that applies to foreigners coming here, it surely applies even more to players brought up here. Terry, remember, is a one club man, bred and brought up by Chelsea. The club can claim to have taught him football, but what did they do to teach him about life and how to live it? And this is a question that can be asked of all clubs, and an issue that the FA need to look at if it wants to sustain its claim to be the guardian of the game.