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Kick this snitching out of football

When even a ref can be grassed up by easily offended players, football’s essential solidarity is clearly in jeopardy.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Blimey. Now even the refs are in the dock for ‘inappropriate language’. Mark Clattenburg had a shocker at Stamford Bridge, but Chelsea’s decision to lodge an official complaint to the FA for name-calling takes the childish politics of playground tale-telling to an all-time low. What’s said on the pitch should stay on the pitch – and that goes for foul-mouthed officials, too.

Did Clattenburg call John Mikel Obi a ‘monkey’ or Juan Mata a ‘Spanish twat’, as reports suggest? Chelsea have decided not to pursue the alleged jibe at Mata – but are pressing ahead with their complaint that Mikel was racially abused. Clattenburg faces not only an FA inquiry but a police investigation, too, after Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, submitted a formal complaint. ‘Hate crimes cannot be tolerated and should be pursued through the official channels with vigour’, pontificated Herbert. Clattenburg denies any wrongdoing and is said to ‘welcome the opportunity to establish the facts’. However, clearing his name may not be a straightforward matter. John Terry remains innocent in the eyes of the law, but the stain on his reputation will never go away. Although he was cleared of a ‘racially aggravated’ public-order offence in court, an FA tribunal fined and banned the Chelsea skipper for using offensive racial language towards QPR defender Anton Ferdinand. There was no consideration of context nor any need to prove intent. The FA tribunal system is more showtrial than fair hearing.

I’m no fan of Mark Clattenburg. I think he likes the sound of his own whistle a little too much for my liking. He’s one of the modern generation of referees who enjoys being the centre of attention. Clattenburg doesn’t do unobtrusive. Paul Hayward is scathing of this new breed of ‘celebrity referees’ in his Telegraph column. ‘Caught up in the whirl of glamour that accompanied the astounding growth in popularity of the Premier League, some refs began to see themselves like Hollywood cops’, writes Hayward. But, however much you dislike Clattenburg, however much you think the referee is always the ‘bastard in the black’, it’s not right that his career could be finished because a footballer can’t take a bit of name-calling.

I’ve no idea what words were exchanged on the pitch or in the dressing room afterwards. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the m-word was used. Yes, of course, calling a black footballer a ‘monkey’ is offensive and hurtful. No one should turn the other cheek to an insult like that. But that doesn’t mean that Chelsea were right to complain to the FA. In the past, spats like this were resolved in private without recourse to an FA disciplinary hearing or a police investigation. In 1994, Stuart Pearce allegedly called Paul Ince an ‘arrogant black c**t’. The matter was dealt with in private. Pearce apologised and the two players continued to play together as England team-mates. In 1996, Peter Schmeichel reportedly called Ian Wright a ‘black bastard’. Wright refused to reveal what the United keeper has said or make an official complaint. ‘I am not in the habit of getting my fellow professionals into trouble’, insisted the Arsenal striker – a sentiment born from a sense of player solidarity that has long been eroded.

‘Whatever happened to the pitch/dressing room being a sanctuary?’, tweeted Gary Neville this week. ‘Gone are the days when you could stand together and allow heated moments to pass.’ He’s right. Dressing room bust-ups and on-field banter used to be regarded as a private matter. That’s what Sepp Blatter meant by his widely pilloried comments about racial abuse last year. ‘We are in a game, and at the end of the game, we shake hands’, said the FIFA president. His choice of words was undoubtedly clumsy, implying as it did that that racist jibes should be ignored. But his point about leaving animosity behind on the pitch was valid. It’s the essence of sportsmanship – you kick lumps out of each other for 90 minutes, but share a beer afterwards.

The old code of honour that ‘what’s said on the pitch, stays on the pitch’ might seem anachronistic, but in my opinion it’s worth preserving. It recognises that, in the heat of battle, footballers – and even officials – say very rash things. And, yes, from time to time they overstep the mark. But I’d much rather incidents of racial abuse were dealt with informally – either on the pitch or behind closed doors – through what Ukraine coach Oleg Blokhin would call a ‘man conversation’. Apologise, shake hands, move on. The alternative – and one that is increasingly becoming a depressing reality – is that footballers are required to mind their language at all times. They are, in effect, perpetually under police caution. Anything they say on the pitch could now be reported to the FA or the police.

Football is caught between two cultures. On the one hand, there’s the old thick-skinned culture where players and fans were considered sufficiently robust to withstand insults. On the other, there’s the new easily offended culture of complaint where grown men run crying to the authorities about name-calling. The latest charge against Mark Clattenburg shows that infantile snitching is in the ascendant. I think it’s time that everyone stopped complaining about who said what to whom and grew some cojones. Football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Verbals are part of the game – and, yes, that includes the match officials, too. We need to put a stop to the finger-jabbing, tale-telling, shop-thy-neighbour culture before it destroys football.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics

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