Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Furies: The Mark Clattenburg moment

This is a small set of posts (maybe two, maybe three) about the way sport releases and channels intense emotions, both hatred and love. I write it now because it is a time of intense emotions.

In this country football is the sport where the most intense emotions are released, released constantly, from week to week and from day to day. My immediate subject is last Sunday's match between Chelsea and Manchester United (I give the BBC link as a gesture, since the press's obligation, particularly in sport, is to write stories, not to produce evidence).

But the post is not about the sport of football, that people may or may not like, or about specific teams that people may or may not like. (I like Manchester United and have done since 1958 but hope to be neutral about the actual events here.) Like the press, I want to write a story: it is a story set in football but is only incidentally about football. That story involves history and expectation but finds its focus on the current charge of racism faced by the referee of the match.

The Match

In the week before the match both teams had played important matches in Europe. United had won, a little fortuitously, having come back from two goals down to Braga, but Chelsea lost at Shakhtar Donetsk. One team's mood was up, the other one's down.

Chelsea were sitting on top of the English Premier League, Manchester United were second.

The match had started with Manchester United taking a two-goal lead that Chelsea eventually made up. After equalising, Chelsea was on the offensive. Passions were very high.

The referee, Mark Clattenburg then made two decisions that, in effect, favoured United. Having sent off one Chelsea player without much complaint, he sent off another, Fernando Torres, for pretending to have been fouled, though the evidence, in retrospect, was far from clear.  So Chelsea were reduced to nine players. That rarely happens in football.

Then United scored a third goal that was off-side but was given. From the referee's point of view it was impossible to tell whether the goal should have been given or not, and he depended on his assistant on the sidelines to signal off-side. The assistant didn't signal so the goal was given.  That's two distinct and decisive bad decisions in a short space of time.

The goal incident was a matter of a second or so. TV has slow-motion replays. Everyone watching TV has an advantage over the referee, who hasn't. The supporters of the team conceding the goal, not to mention the team itself, who don't have slow-motion replays in front of them, naturally don't want the goal to stand. They are shocked and dismayed. In the crowd movement following the United goal a Chelsea steward, patrolling the Chelsea end of the ground, was injured.

But it was the sending off of  Torres that was the real sparking point.

Immediately after the match Clattenburg was accused by two Chelsea players, the Spaniard Roberto Mata and the Nigerian John Obi Mikel, of making racist comments. Mata quickly withdrew his charge but Mikel has persisted. The police have now stepped in and are investigating. Clattenburg has been relieved of his duties, suspended pending a decision. His career is in the balance - not, ostensibly, for getting two decisions wrong, but for racism.

During the match the Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who is black, was constantly booed. Since the match photographs have been published of a Chelsea fan making monkey grunts and gestures at one of the black United players.

There is history here.

Before the Match: The racism issue

In 2008 the Manchester United footballer Patrice Evra, a black French player, got into an altercation with Chelsea groundstaff after another contentious Chelsea-Manchester United match. Evra claimed the ground staff hurled racial insults at him. A brawl ensued but in the enquiry Evra was accused of exaggeration and it was he who was fined and banned for four games.

In 2011 the Liverpool footballer and Uruguayan international, Luis Suarez, was accused by Evra, during another hot-blooded match, of abusing him in racial terms. Suarez denied it, then changed his story, but still denied the racist charge. The case was very contentious and Liverpool - the club, the then manager and the players, were vehement in their rejection of the charges - which were however upheld by the FA, as a result of which Suarez was fined and suspended for eight games. This fuelled the resentment between the two clubs and projected a different light on the Chelsea incident - also involving Evra - three years before. It also brought the race issue to the fore.

Also in 2011 Chelsea were involved in a match against another London club, Queen's Park Rangers. The Chelsea captain, John Terry, was alleged to have addressed a racially loaded remark to the QPR player, Anton Ferdinand. The case was taken up by the police and took months. At the end of it the decision was that there was not enough evidence to convict but that Tery's evidence was suspect. The FA then concluded their enquiry by finding Terry guilty, fining him and banning him for some matches. Terry later admitted the charge.

These two incidents made race a hot and current issue after years without major incident in England.


The Terry case took so long that it disrupted the national team's preparation for the European Championship. The FA had overruled the national team manager's choice of Terry as captain by banning him from the tournament, as a result of which the manager, Fabio Capello, resigned just before the tournament started.

A new national manager, Roy Hodgson, was appointed. Terry's most effective partner as England defender had been Rio Ferdinand, brother of Anton. Rio had publicly taken up an attitude in defence of his brother. Hodgson, deprived of Terry, now left Ferdinand out 'for purely footballing reasons'. It was a contentious omission, and Hodgson was not entirely believed. Some thought the omission was to prevent a split in the England camp. Hodgson later made an offguard remark suggesting Ferdinand's England career was over. He later apologised for this.

John Terry's court case was supported in court by a fellow Chelsea player and also an England international, Ashley Cole, who is black. Someone on Twitter than wrote that Cole was 'a choc ice', meaning black only on the outside, but white inside. It's an old insult one black person might aim at another thought to be too keen to comply with white rules and mores. The term 'Uncle Tom' used to be aimed, in the same way, at white-pleasing black Americans against other black Americans. That was not regarded as racist. Ferdinand made a brief Twitter response that indicated agreement with this original Tweeter's view, as a result of which Ferdinand was accused of racism and fined.

When Rio Ferdinand appeared in the match last Sunday he was booed by a large section of the Chelsea crowd, much as Anton Ferdinand had been before. This could only have been because he was the brother of the man who had been racially abused by the Chelsea hero John Terry and had questioned the integrity of both Terry and Cole.

Three further background factors

1. Some years before, in 2003, Rio Ferdinand was fined a large amount and banned for eight months for missing a drugs test, Eight months is a long time for missing the test, not for failing it. It was probably considered to be an exemplary sentence, though another far less-well known player was at the same time fined far less and banned only for a few weeks. I imagine Ferdinand will have remembered that.

2. In 2010 John Terry had been in the public eye for a well-publicised alleged affair with the partner of a Chelsea and England international team-mate, Wayne Bridge. The partner was also mother of Bridge's son. Bridge's career has been on a downward spiral since then. Terry was briefly relieved of the England captaincy. Terry has been a controversial figure ever since.

3. Earlier this month the England under-21 national team played Serbia in Serbia. The team, as witnessed by spectators,  recorded on YouTube, was subjected to racial chants and one England player was so sick of being picked on that at the end of the match he kicked the ball away. The referee sent him off for that. Brawls ensued by the tunnel and Enland players and staff were attacked. The Serbian FA is now defending itself by counter-charging some England players of riminal behviour. Since the evidence is pretty clear on YouTube is seems this is a clumsy attempt to divert blame and attention. (I should add that I know racism is rife in Eastern Europe and far more vicious than it is here now but I was still disgusted by the Serbian crowd - and FA's - attitude and fervently hope Serbia are banned from European competition for a good while). The humiliation offered to black England players is clearly a part of the background and the frustration felt by black players here.

A good number of black footballers - a high proportion of the Premier League's best players - were angry following the Terry debacle. Then came the Serbian incident. The chief organisation in the fight against racism in English football,  Kick It Out, has been very successful generally, being supported by the law and the FA. The relatively lenient FA punishment of Terry drove some prominent black players - the Ferdinand brothers among them - to protest, and they refused to wear a shirt bearing the Kick It Out message on a day when Premier League players were encouraged to wear it as a protest against recent racial incidents. There was talk of forming a breakaway black footballers' association.  That talk has now faded but it might rise again.

Summing up

My own feeling is that Clattenburg is very unlikely to have said what he is alleged to have said. His fellow officials will probably support him - well they would, wouldn't they? some Chelsea players may support Mikel - well, they would wouldn't they?  Clattenburg has no record of racism, is one of the top referees in the country and internationally, and, like all referees, is in a position where every TV pundit's first reaction is to study several times over a slow-motion replay and then to criticise the referee for not seeing it.  The Torres decision looks worse to me than the goal. Clattenburg is behind the action and unless he is sure that Torres dives he should not be sending him off. I can't see how he could have been sure. The Hernandez goal would be hard for him to judge from his position, and it seems to me the Chelsea goalkeeper may be obstructing the assistant's view.

Mikel's charge - which is the real point of this post - might be true, it might be a mishearing, it might have been a tendency under the pressure of the moment to mishear, or it might just be made up in order to get back at Clattenburg. The bastard has prevented us  from winning, let's get even for John Terry, let's get him in the most hurtful way we can.  It may be so, it may not, but coming from Chelsea, given the history above, given the events of the match, it doesn't seem inconceivable

This is background. Thinking about the passions involved will be the task of the next post.


Gwil W said...

Being a football referee is a thankless task. One wrong decision and it's going to be "the referee's a wanker for the next 10 minutes" two wrong decision and it's for the rest of the game" but I've also heard the chant "you're a black bastard" applied to referees purely on the basis of the colour of their kit. I think there's probably no overpaid football so-called hero getting more abuse than the ref who gets it from all sides.

George S said...

I quite agree, Gwilym - and it is an interesting human trait to turn on representatives of authority and justice. And modern technology makes life impossible for referees. The first thing any TV pundit does is to investigate refereeing decisions. I have heard TV commentator looking two or three times at an incident and claiming to have seen something I clearly haven't and can't. What hope for the poor ref then.