At around 6pm on Saturday night, whilst watching West Ham take on Arsenal, the Sky Sports infobar flashes up with breaking news. Roberto di Matteo has announced that Ashley Cole is to be disciplined for breaking Chelsea’s social media policy.
About right, too. But it prompts the obvious question. If Chelsea have the will to enforce their social media policy, after Ashley Cole’s furious reaction on Friday to the Football Association’s written reasons for the four match ban handed out to John Terry, then do they similarly have the stomach to enforce their policy on racism?
On their website, Chelsea profess that they “practice a zero tolerance policy towards racism at Stamford Bridge.” What about outside of Stamford Bridge, then? So far, they seem ambivalent to their captain being found guilty of racially abusing an opponent. Cole was accused by the independent panel judging Terry’s case, along with the club’s secretary Dave Barnard, of being unreliable witnesses whose stories had changed. This whole affair has brought shame on Chelsea, Terry, Cole and the rest involved.
Ultimately Terry is fighting a losing battle in a desperate attempt to preserve the tattered remains of his reputation, but with it he is dragging football backwards in time to a point where black players could not step onto the football field comfortable that they would not face abuse. That Terry is doing this is shameful. Even if he wants to continue to profess his innocence, he has to realise that this issue goes beyond him. He has been found guilty of using racist language towards Anton Ferdinand, regardless of the context. Terry is not as important as the fight against racism, and if he realised that, he presumably would have given up this particular fight a long while ago.
Revered by Chelsea fans as their captain, their leader and a legend, Terry is a man whose character has often been applauded. Among the critics of the Chelsea man in recent weeks, many journalists have thrown caveats about his abilities on the pitch to sweeten the attack on the player. But Terry, far from being a leader, showed pure cowardice last year when putting his knee in the back of a Barcelona player with his team 2-0 down in the second leg of their crucial Champions League tie. He also missed the crucial penalty that helped to cost his team the competition in 2008 against Manchester United, as his technique and balance failed him. Those are not the actions of a captain, a leader or a legend.
There are now calls for the club to sever ties with Terry completely to distance themselves from the unseemly mess. In fairness to Chelsea, it is unreasonable to expect them to sack Terry. Not because he deserves to play for the European champions, but given that a court of law found that there was not enough evidence to find him guilty of racial abuse, the club would presumably open themselves up to a reasonably straightforward legal case for unfair dismissal from the player if they took that path. Nonetheless, Chelsea could take a significant step. Manchester United, when Eric Cantona assaulted a fan at the end of a game with Crystal Palace 17 years ago, banned the Frenchman from playing for them for the remainder of that season. Given the campaign in question was one in which they narrowly missed out on the league title to Blackburn Rovers, and that Cantona was of similar, arguably more importance, than Terry currently is to Chelsea, the Stamford Bridge club could do worse than look to Old Trafford for guidance in this matter. A suspension from the club itself seems reasonable in the circumstances. To play devil’s advocate, assaulting a fan would seem, though appalling, no worse than racial abuse.
Don’t hold your breath, but at the same time Chelsea deserve the chance to wait for the outcome of a probable appeal by Terry to the Football Association amid the clamour for action. The result of that would be the right and sensible time to act. But for a team who have looked to improve their reputation by playing with more class and style on the pitch, this is the perfect opportunity to do the same thing off the field of play.