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Clattenburg, Chelsea, and English soccer’s weekly dalliance with race

Oct 29, 2012, 3:07 PM EST

Referee Mark Clattenburg speaks with Chelsea's John Obi Mikel and  Manchester United's Patrice Evra after sending off Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic during their English Premier League soccer match in London Reuters

It’s easy to make light of another race controversy in English soccer, but you can only laugh at the same joke for so long. To the extent soccer is a reflection of a nation’s broader culture, soccer is showing the boomerang effects of England’s zero tolerance, no room for discussion approach. Racism is unacceptable, but how do you enforce any standard when you can’t agree what racism is? Luis Suárez’s (albeit malicious and excessive) use of a term accepted in South America? John Terry’s terrible context for the adjective ‘black’? Or whatever Mark Clattenburg is accused of saying to John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata on Sunday? England’s need to stop and recalibrate on a case-by-case basis shows both a lack of confidence and certainty. That Jason Roberts and Rio Ferdinand’s attempts to further the dialog were met with derision shows the ignorant externalities that have developed. No wonder this keeps happening.

England’s latest controversy centers on Clattenburg, arbiter of Sunday’s Chelsea-Manchester United affair. Chelsea have accused the match official of using “inappropriate language” toward two of their players, widely thought to be Mikel and Mata. What did he say? Who knows, but it’s assumed to be racial in nature, and despite publicly offering their full support of Clattenburg, the Professional Game Match Officials have withheld him from the upcoming weekend’s assignments. England’s Football Association has opened an investigation, and at least one opportunistically-adorned pundit has speculated Clattenburg may have called his last game.

We shouldn’t assume Clattenburg’s done, but we can consider the more general scenario. What would it mean if a referee racially abused a player? Obviously, the official should lose their job, having shown a type of deep-seated bias that would make it impossible to trust his more superficial in-game judgments. But that’s the least interesting of the implications. More importantly, such an incident would dispel the notion that this type of ignorance is a exclusively symptomatic of a player class characterized as insular, arrogant, uneducated, and entitled. Those qualities were supposed to be precipitants to player (and, in many cultures, fan) transgressions, but if officials are also capable of these mistakes, you can’t write them off to player arrogance.

Gerneralizing beyond individuals’ stupid decisions, there seem three possibilities regarding underlying causes. First, the competitive nature of high-level soccer compels people to fall back on their most base instincts – feelings shame and neglect leave unrefined by the light of fame and fortune. The Suárez and Clattenburg instances both came in highly-charged rivalry matches after provocation (Suárez in an altercation with Patrice Evra, Clattenburg in confrontations with Chelsea players). Just as alcohol tends to being out what lies beneath, perhaps competitive intensity does the same. When my emotions are high, I’ll resort to what I perceive to be my big, must hurtful guns.

There’s also the possibility that we’re just seeing a reflection of a soccer culture that’s always existed. This is almost certainly the case. With every iteration of this controversy we’re told this happens all the time, and we’d be shocked to know all the trash that’s thrown during a 90-minute match. It’s only the attention that’s paid to the modern game that brings these incidents to the forefront, we’re told, a contention that’s impossible to deny.

It would be a mistake, however, to consider this selective enforcement. Just because we didn’t hear about these incidents in the past doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have cared. And even if we didn’t, times chance. There’s clearly no current tolerance for this type of idiocy.

The final possibility is one England needs to come to grips with before these problems go away. While, as soccer fans, we’re used to the face to English soccer being the type of liberal erudition posted by the Guardian or inferred from a commentator’s posh tones, this is only one part of the English landscape. The broader section of English life is more likely to note these controversies and move on, if not (in the case of Terry) actually forgive him. Regardless, there is no discussion. There is no attempt to find a bridge between these views. There’s no national dialog (let alone identity) attached to this issue. it’s almost trite to note, butEngland has always had trouble coming to grips with the legacy of its empire. Soccer’s oblivious response to deeper-resting race issues is a symptom of England’s problematic psychology.

Every nation deals with issues of race, and while soccer brings England’s to the forefront, it’s a mistake to assume the nation’s approach is worse than other countries’. What makes the soccer problem so interesting is the inherent hypocrisy of England’s self-appointed role as the game’s moral authority. When Luis Súarez committed an intentional handball on the goal line against Ghana in World Cup 2010, it was England that led a disproportionately large and ridiculous response. On issues of diving, it’s England’s culture that appeals to a higher, inherent morality that should be imbued in each player. The nation has only two black coaches in its top four tiers and recently had a prominent coach equate the Rooney Rule with racism. That England can’t form a coherent, progressive approach to race but seeks to serve as a moral compass is ludicrous. They know we can see them, right?

The shock, awe and bewilderment we see from England whenever race meets sport reflects a society that hasn’t come to grips with something deeper. That Jason Roberts and Rio Ferdinand get derided for reminding people that a stance is nothing without action serves as a perfect reflection of their state of affairs. If Roberts and Ferdinand’s stances can cause controversy, England is still too far away from conveying the day-to-day, implicit messages that will curtail these problems.

  1. surly1n1nd1anapol1s - Oct 29, 2012 at 8:52 PM

    Richard I appreciate the piece and your coverage of the Rio incident in the last week. How do they possibly determine this claim? And given the problems with Chelsea’s intolerable denials of John Terry’s behavior, does this claim sound strangely odd timing?

    • Richard Farley - Oct 29, 2012 at 10:27 PM

      Thanks, surly1. I appreciate it.

      Clattenburg and the referees are denying Chelsea’s claims, so this shapes up a lot like John Terry vs. Anton Ferdinand. Are their other witnesses (perhaps Manchester United players). Is there any video evidence? Can we discern anything from lip reading? Whose stories match up? Whose do not? And does every agree on the interpretation, definition and context of what was allegedly said?

      Sounds like fun, right? I swear, I started developing a headache while typing that out.

      Regarding the timing of it all, I have to trust everybody’s acting in good faith until shown otherwise. I don’t want to think about that “otherwise” – that would be too depressing.

      The coincidence of this incitent falling during Terry’s suspension is bound to stir discussion, though. Some of that will look like the above. Some will discuss motive. It’s inevitable.

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