LONDON – Sometime in the next week the Football Association must decide who it believes — four English-speaking match officials or a player whose mother tongue is Portuguese and whose English is far from fluent.
It is no exaggeration to say this is arguably the most significant disciplinary case the governing body of English football has faced because never before has a leading club — the European Champions — claimed a top-class referee racially abused a player.
The career of referee Mark Clattenburg, not to mention the reputation of refereeing, is at stake after he was accused of using “inappropriate language” toward Jon Obi Mikel, the Chelsea midfielder during last Sunday’s 3-2 defeat by Manchester United.
Mikel did not hear what Clattenburg is alleged to have said, the Brazilian Ramires told him what he thought he heard. There is no video or audible evidence to support the claim, only the word of Ramires.
Clattenburg, who has denied Chelsea’s allegations, was miked-up to the two assistant referees Michael McDonough and Simon Long, plus fourth official Michael Jones, who heard everything the referee said during the match. They have denied hearing any “inappropriate language” so on the face of it, the case is four against one.
Independent lawyers advised Chelsea there were sufficient grounds to make an official complaint to the F.A., the club having initially reported the incident to Nick Cusack, the match delegate, after the game. However, Chelsea decided there was not sufficient evidence to support a second claim to the F.A. with regard to the alleged verbal abuse by Clattenburg of another first-team player, widely reported to be Juan Mata.
The day after the game, Peter Herbert, chair of the Society Of Black Lawyers, made a formal complaint to the Metropolitan Police, which was duty bound to open an investigation into an allegation made by a Nigeria international, who was told by a Brazilian what he believed a referee with a strong Geordie accent had said. Football’s ability to provide the surreal is never ending.
The F.A. stepped aside when the Crown Prosecution Service decided John Terry should be charged with making a racially aggravated remark at Queens Park Rangers’ Anton Ferdinand (the Chelsea captain was cleared) which resulted in a delay of a year for the football hearing (where the former England international was found guilty).
There is no rule of law that states the F.A. can only legislate after any criminal proceedings have ended. With Terry, the F.A. gave primacy to the criminal proceedings but it does not want Clattengate to drag on for months and is likely to push ahead with its inquiries regardless of what the police may do.
The F.A. has two options — to conclude Chelsea’s complaint is strong enough to charge Clattenburg and then the case will be heard by a three-man Independent Regulatory Commission, or that the club’s evidence is too weak for the IRC to return a guilty verdict based on the balance of probability.
Chelsea, not least given events with Terry over the past year, was irresponsible to allow Mikel, manager Roberto di Matteo and chief executive Ron Gourley to confront Clattenburg after the game and make a formal complaint to the match delegate. Only the manager is allowed to see the referee and Mikel, who was highly charged according to reports, could face a misconduct charge for his behavior.
The immediate media coverage of events at Stamford Bridge was vitriolic, predictable and saddening. One columnist even said it was the worst refereeing display ever, while the one-sided Chelsea leak-led stories effectively saw a respected referee guilty until proven innocent.
Public opinion has changed significantly in the past few days with suggestions that Clattenburg saying “shut up Mikel” as he was being cautioned for dissent could have been misheard as “shut up monkey” by a player far from fluent in English.
The Terry case and that involving Anders Frisk seven years ago are irrelevant in the Mikel situation, but they add to the uncomfortable scenario of a club with such history being involved in the latest headline-making accusation.
In 2005, then-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho claimed he had seen Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard enter Frisk’s dressing room at halftime during a Champions League game at the Nou Camp. The allegation was untrue and UEFA, which called Mourinho “an enemy of football,” banned him for two games, but the threats from Chelsea fans saw the Swedish official announce his premature retirement.
If the F.A. charged Clattenburg and the IRC subsequently finds him guilty, his career as a referee will rightly come to an ignominious end. However, if the F.A. is not satisfied that Chelsea’s complaint is strong enough to charge Clattenburg, the F.A. must hand out the appropriate sanction to those concerned.
A frivolous allegation of racism is as damaging as the real thing.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.