Wednesday 13 December 2017

On-field culture has changed forever in season of goodwill

Among the other high-profile cases deemed worthy of a press release by the Crown Prosecution Service in recent days was that of 'Anne the Elephant,' in which a couple were accused of mistreating a relative of Dumbo in a British circus.

Yesterday's announcement that John Terry is to be prosecuted under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act is of a much more serious nature, and raises the possibility that football may have been ignoring an elephant of its own.

In 18 hours, the Beautiful Game has lurched from its daily obsession with red cards, offsides, soaraway transfers and sackings into a much darker realm.

Liverpool's best player has been banned for eight matches and fined £40,000 for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra and the captain of England and Chelsea ordered to appear at West London Magistrates' Court in February to face a charge of a "racially aggravated public order offence".

Suarez and Terry have travelled along divergent rails.

COMPLAINT

The genesis of the case against Terry was a complaint to the police by a member of the public based on television replays of the QPR-Chelsea game on October 23 (pictured right); the Suarez investigation has remained in-house because Evra voiced his objection on French television and found himself pursuing his grievance through the English FA's own disciplinary channels.

So, the law of the land and football's own law book have deposited us in a grey area, where the accused can either find himself taking delivery of a court summons on his doorstep (Terry) or facing the three wise men of an FA commission at a hotel conveniently situated near a north-west motorway (Suarez).

In the meantime, the FA's own investigation into Terry's alleged racial taunting of QPR's Anton Ferdinand is on ice in a way the Suarez case never was.

This has huge ramifications for England, Chelsea and the FA themselves as they square up to the ground-breaking precedent set by the Suarez penalty.

The English game has set a standard for intolerance of intolerance which not only serves as a challenge to the rest of the world game but obliges the FA to keep punishments bracingly high from now on.

Only last month FIFA president Sepp Blatter coughed up the risible thought that racism on the pitch could be smoothed over with "a handshake."

Blatter's choreographed contrition the next day failed to stop us dwelling on the possible connection between the president's flippancy and the powder puff fines levied against racist chanting by UEFA and FIFA. We are in another world now. In less than 24 hours the pseudo-religion of football has been served notice that society's lights will no longer be steered away from the private culture of psychological baiting between players and teams.

The disgusting chants of fans were always audible. The poison that flows between performers is heard only by the players themselves and sometimes referees, who seldom seem to take much notice.

The case against Terry cannot be heard in pubs or on social networking sites. Twitter is not empowered to destroy the fundamental presumption of innocence on which our legal system is based.

Terry denies the charge and says he will fight it "tooth and nail." But now that everyone is a blogger, columnist and 140-character Old Bailey judge, the law fights an increasingly desperate battle to prevent comment on a prosecution that has yet to come to court. We can say with impunity, though, that the on-field culture has been changed forever over 18 hours in the season of goodwill.

At the very least, players now know that fans have a new tool when they think they have observed potentially criminal behaviour on the field -- the complaint to the police, which some may now use mischievously against teams or individuals they happen to hate.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons special lines may need to be created in police stations for replica-shirted complainants alleging a violent assault or a breach of the race relations laws.

This is not to trivialise the complaint against Terry or mock its author, but merely to highlight the extra scrutiny it could bring.

Footballers are raised in a system of psychological warfare and omerta, in which few there are few whistle-blowers.

In the Suarez case there was no long list of witnesses to interview because the case revolved around one man's accusation and another's attempt to defend himself on grounds of cultural mitigation.

Simply, footballers can no longer jump in the shower secure in the knowledge that a pitch is a private club where anything goes.

Suarez faces a professional lifetime of pariah status and Terry is similarly imperilled.

No England captain has faced such a momentous trial of his decency and integrity.

The nastiest fans must be enjoying this. The spotlight has swung away from vile chanting against Arsene Wenger and on to the pitch where some multi-millionaires keep alive a mentality in which all difference is weakness and exists to be exploited for sporting ends.

Grandstand obnoxiousness should not be allowed to slide from view while the Suarez and Terry cases are chewed over in the twittersphere.

The Chelsea fans who sang of Anton Ferdinand "you know what you are" in Genk are part of a social problem that the Suarez verdict and the Terry prosecution should not obscure.

They are the other elephant in this circus. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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