Sunday night, John Terry — widely regarded as one of the best center-backs of his generation — retired from playing international football for England at the relatively young age of 31. Terry is facing a disciplinary hearing by the Football Association (the governing body of the sport in England) for using racially abusive language, and the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that he’ll be hit with a lengthy suspension from club football. Unsurprisingly, the hearing and the decision to retire are linked. Terry’s statement on the matter explained that he felt compelled to retire “in advance of the hearing of the FA disciplinary charge because I feel the FA, in pursuing charges against me where I have already been cleared in a court of law, have made my position with the national team untenable.”
Now, before I get any further into this subject, I need to register an interest: I am a lifelong supporter of Chelsea FC, Terry’s club side, and can legitimately be accused of being a little bit biased. However, Terry’s been the most divisive figure in English football for most of the last decade, and pretty much everyone in England — football fan or not — is biased where Terry is concerned; you either support Chelsea, or you hate John Terry. This may seem strange considering Terry has the best record of any captain in the history of the English national team, with 12 wins, two draws, and one defeat in competitive matches (13-2-2 if you count competitive dead rubbers). To fully understand how John Terry came by his tattered reputation in his native country, it is necessary to understand not only the relationship between the England team, the England fans, the tabloid press, and the Football Association, but how the latter three groups conspire to destroy any hope that the English national team has of winning a major football tournament.
Let’s start with recent history and attempt to clear up the racism issue. The allegations stem from an incident in which Terry was caught on camera (but not on microphone) uttering racial epithets in the direction of QPR’s Anton Ferdinand during a game, after which Ferdinand brought criminal proceedings against him. The subsequent court case cleared Terry of racially abusing Ferdinand, largely through lack of evidence (which isn’t surprising given that no one could testify to actually hearing the alleged abuse).
Today’s FA disciplinary committee is concerned with the lesser charge of using racially aggravated language — which is undeniable — but it makes no judgment on whether the intention was abusive or not. Anyone who plans on having a strong opinion on that question should read the judgment of the court from the criminal trial (with the proviso that the racially insensitive language probably makes it unsafe for consumption in the workplace). If you don’t have time to read the document, take a biased Chelsea fan’s word for it; the judge did not believe John Terry to be a racist, found his testimony to be more consistent than Ferdinand’s, and considered the defense’s case to be a plausible explanation of events.
Opposition fans can't be bothered with the judgement, and they have spent much of this season chanting, “John Terry, you know what you are,” at their former international captain. This is the same chant heard regularly wherever Liverpool plays, when it is directed at their Uruguayan striker, Luis Suarez, who was adjudged to have repeatedly racially abused Manchester United’s Patrice Evra last season. It was heard during Liverpool’s home defeat against Arsenal earlier this month, where the away fans voiced their disgust at Suarez’s racist character during the entire match. Could these outspoken critics of racism be the same Arsenal fans who are notorious for singing anti-Semitic songs about Tottenham? I’m afraid they could.
We have now strayed deep into the complicated world of moral relativity that exists within what English football fans call “banter.” Banter used to be a term denoting an exchange of light, playful, teasing remarks, but has now been adopted by bigots to justify racist, sexist, and homophobic humor/abuse. English football is riddled with this sort of thing, but those singing the songs will tell you that they mean no harm; the "banter" is purely a means of antagonizing rival supporters, and this explains how fans (and it certainly isn’t just Arsenal supporters) can chant racist songs at one ground while chiding racism at another.
Fueling this banter are the English tabloids, whose business models rely on providing a constant diet of scandal, and they know that targeting the most hated players will generate the most revenue. Manchester United players have been prime targets for decades, and more recently, Chelsea has joined them on the firing lines. The tabloids reserve their most titillating scandals for the run-up to major tournaments and can be relied upon to show their support for the national team by publishing scandalous exposés of the players and manager in the days before any major competition. There are countless examples of this, although it wasn’t necessary prior to Euro 2012; Terry and Ferdinand had already provided all the scandal they craved. Even for that, though, the tabloids were indirectly responsible. The incident between Ferdinand and Terry began over the former’s taunts about a scandal published by the News of the World (you may remember that ex-newspaper from other examples of laudable investigative journalism) in January 2010, six months before the World Cup.
The imbroglio Ferdinand cited to spark the spat was Terry’s alleged affair with (former Chelsea and England teammate) Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend, Veronica Perroncel. Now, I should point out that both Terry and Perroncel have denied this story — and Perroncel was later paid substantial damages by at least two newspapers for publishing falsehoods about her — but mud sticks, and the scandal caused untold damage to the English national team. Upon publication of the News of the World’s exclusive story, the English football press quickly decided that John Terry should be stripped of the England captaincy to preserve harmony in the dressing room. The Football Association readily obliged them, forcing manager Fabio Capello (much to his annoyance) to revoke Terry of the captain’s arm band. Incredibly, no one bothered to check whether Wayne Bridge would even be a part of England’s 2010 World Cup Squad, and after Terry had been demoted, Bridge announced that he would not be available for the trip to South Africa (even if Capello decided to pick him, which was always unlikely). Under the uncertain stewardship of replacement captain Steven Gerrard, England performed poorly in South Africa and was lambasted by the national press, who laid most of the blame for the team’s disorganized performance and lack of team spirit at Fabio Capello’s door.
This is how the English tabloids — and particularly the Sun and the Sunday Sun (the fundamentally indistinguishable replacement for the News of the World) — operate; they destabilize the England team before major tournaments, wrap themselves in the flag of St. George during the competition itself, and when the team they’ve worked so hard to undermine fails to win, one player (or sometimes the manager, especially if he’s foreign) is made a scapegoat and ritually flogged on the back pages until the next scandal arrives. In recent years, the tabloid’s focus has been on John Terry, but during the past couple decades, outstanding servants of the national side such as Paul Gascoigne, David Seaman, Phil Neville, David Beckham, Ashley Cole, and Wayne Rooney have all been given the treatment. And that is to say nothing of the constant flow of information deemed vital to the public interest regarding events in Sven Goran Eriksson’s bedroom when he was England manager.
None of this is surprising, of course; we live in a celebrity-obsessed age, and that obsession extends to our sports stars, who are paid handsomely to compensate for any inconvenience caused by their tremendous fame. What is surprising is how readily England’s Football Association goes along with the media’s demands for punishments of its top internationals, even when they would never dream of acting so harshly towards less well-known players. Perhaps the best example of this occurred when Anton Ferdinand’s elder brother, Manchester United and England stalwart Rio Ferdinand, forgot to attend a mandatory drug test towards the end of 2003. The tabloids went ballistic and demanded Ferdinand receive an exemplary ban. The FA duly obliged, hitting Ferdinand with an eight-month suspension — the third longest ban in the history of English football — which ruled him out of the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. Needless to say, he was sorely missed, and England was beaten on penalties by the hosts in the first knockout round. Meanwhile, far away from the media spotlight in League Two, Billy Turley continued to play in goal for lowly Rushden and Diamonds, despite having tested positive for nandrolone in 2002. Turley claimed that he had ingested the PED by accident, and the FA, unencumbered by the need to placate the sport’s moral guardians in the press, opted to let him off with a warning. It was only after Turley tested positive for a second time in 2004 (this time for cocaine) that the FA chose to ban him, and even then only for six months.
Admittedly, that was all a long time ago, but, as the latest Terry scandal proves, nothing has changed. Predictably enough, Terry was stripped of his captaincy for a second time following the Anton Ferdinand incident, just a few months after being reinstated at the insistence of Fabio Capello. Capello claims that the right to select his own captain came in his contract, and being forced by the FA to demote Terry a second time proved to be the final straw for the Italian, who walked out on the England team with just four months to go before this summer’s Euro 2012 tournament. This was yet another victory for the moral arbiters of the English press, who had long been gunning for Capello for being a foreigner. They were delighted with his English replacement, Roy Hodgson, who they welcomed by mocking his speech impediment. Once again, the national team was destabilized just months before a major competition, which ended in predictably ignominious fashion. The only unusual part was the press opting to scapegoat the entire team rather than any one individual, with the Olympic Games providing a chance to contrast England’s reviled, overpaid, over-privileged footballing failures with Britain’s all-conquering Olympians.
The FA, meanwhile, claim to have been powerless in the face of public opinion. They’ve expressed bafflement at Terry’s assertion that their actions have made his position in the England squad untenable and maintain that they’ve had no choice but to resume their disciplinary procedures against Terry after he was cleared by a criminal court. Which rather begs the question — why have they done nothing about Paolo Di Canio?
Di Canio is a self-proclaimed fascist, and also the manager of League One’s Swindon Town. Last season, he was accused by his own players of making racist comments about Jonathan Tehoue, a French player who was on loan at the club. The FA announced in May that they would be investigating the allegations against Di Canio, who continues to manage a team of players who have accused him of making racist comments. I contacted the FA’s press office today to ask whether any progress was being made with the investigation, and if there were a date by which it might be completed; a spokesperson informed me that "they are still making inquiries" and the process was "ongoing." The BBC have also been making inquiries, and reported that Swindon Town’s lawyers apologized to Tehoue, but they have subsequently withdrawn their apology.
The English tabloid press isn’t interested in this story — a scandal about lowly Swindon Town isn’t going to sell any papers — so the FA aren’t under any pressure to take action. They appear to have felt much more pressure to take further action over Terry, and, as a result, they’ve lost the services of one of the best central defenders England has ever produced and further weakened the national side. I’m confident that England fans will quickly come to regret the FA’s decisions, and I’m setting the over-under on the first tabloid newspaper calling for Terry to come out of retirement at exactly one year from today. England travels to Ukraine on the 9th of September 2013 for a vital qualifier, and if their presence in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup is still in the balance at that stage, you can be sure that the press will be calling for the return of experienced campaigners to ensure safe progress. Ultimately, though, it won’t matter. As long as the English tabloids continue to destabilize the national team before every tournament, the English fans continue to buy the papers to provide further background material for their charming "banter," and the FA continue to punish their players according to how many tabloid column inches an indiscretion generates, then England will have no chance of winning a major footballing tournament.