Racism row obscures fact football is spinning out of referees' control
However the Mark Clattenburg affair plays out, football needs to know that it is facing something more than still another squall of tawdry publicity: the possibility that it is fast reaching the point of the ungovernable.
The beleaguered referee -- placed in the dock by Chelsea, of all the moral guardians, after nearly two hours of tortuous deliberation, and, apparently, cross-indexing of evidence -- was yesterday emphatic that he would fight all charges of inappropriate and racial comments directed at John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata. He has received unqualified backing from his professional colleagues.
He may also have been reinforced in his defiance by a growing groundswell of scepticism regarding the ability of any official, including the highly ranked 37-year-old Clattenburg, to effectively control high-stakes matches in the current climate of routine cheating and borderline anarchy.
Clattenburg, who was in charge of the Olympic final between Brazil and Mexico in the summer, was notably successful in maintaining the pace and the competitive edge of Sunday's taut and at times spectacular collision between Chelsea and Manchester United.
Well, right up to the moment he felt obliged to hand a second yellow and consequent red card to Chelsea's Fernando Torres, who, in the opinion of the well-placed referee, had dived following what video re-runs revealed to be the slightest contact from United defender Jonny Evans.
This is a habit shared by Torres with many others -- and a prime reason to believe that referees are being stretched to breaking point.
Certainly, from that moment Clattenburg was besieged, most notably by Mikel, and now his rapid rise in the game finds itself threatened by a glass ceiling.
Similarly besieged is the game itself, facing the prospect of another marathon racism controversy to follow those involving Luis Suarez and John Terry -- a recurring nightmare made more likely by the long-distance intervention of Peter Herbert, the chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers who was at the heart of the proposal to set up a federation of black players. Herbert ensured the involvement of the Metropolitan Police by reporting his concern that racial abuse might have occurred.
There is, of course, the possibility that it did, and if so, Clattenburg -- who has known several crises in his meteoric rise in football -- would earn little sympathy using a defence that he lapsed under the most intense pressure.
Yet, though a proven case of racial abuse outranks all other issues, this does not mean that football could comfortably separate itself from the appalling situation in which Clattenburg found himself after making a series of match-changing, but, in his opinion, unavoidable decisions.
From the Chelsea dressing-room we have had confirmation that Mikel, the most voluble of Clattenburg's complainers, insistently demanded to know why he and his team-mates could not openly challenge the referee's decisions.
There is also, smouldering on the record, the experience of former leading referee Graham Poll, who in 2006 had to fight charges made by Chelsea trio Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole that he had threatened to "sort them out" and "teach them a lesson" for past misdemeanours. Poll steadfastly denied the claims and was fully supported by his match-day colleagues.
He was cleared, and soon after, the Chelsea players -- such potent figures in the shaping of the club's culture -- retracted their claims on the club's official website.
If an outcome to the racism charge has to await due process, we can certainly make an interim judgment on the extent of the referee's ordeal.
Innocent or guilty of the accusation that will inevitably dominate any final verdict on the events of last Sunday afternoon, Clattenburg's plight can only provide fresh ammunition for those who believe the job of a referee is verging on the untenable.
The fact is that Clattenburg was in charge of a game marred by only one indisputable and significant error -- and it just happened to be beyond his control. The winning goal scored by United's Javier Hernandez was clearly offside, but Clattenburg checked for a linesman's flag and it was only when it did not appear that he signalled a goal.
Gary Neville, now acclaimed by many as the game's most insightful analyst, gave Clattenburg the barb that he made two decisions on Torres and that both were wrong.
The Chelsea player, according to Neville, should have received a straight red card for a high tackle but gone unpunished for the 'dive'.
Yet if Torres' first offence was serious, it was not to be compared with the horrendous lunge Nigel de Jong inflicted on Xabi Alonso during the last World Cup final. The Dutchman, who can forget, received only a yellow card from England's No 1 referee Howard Webb.
Neville was unmoved by the pressure on referees: they took the job and they should get on with it.
But under what conditions and with what support from a professional game which filters every incident through the perspective of self-interest? Without technology, or the support of a working morality among those they have to control, what chance do referees have?
It is approaching zero in a game moving beyond self-discipline and without even a hint of conscience.