Clattenburg Case Could Spark Change

The Clattenburg racism story is a fascinating one. You can put aside some pretty significant facts and it’d still be a blogger’s dream. Consider the following:

  • He’s the first official in the English Premier League era to be accused of racist language.
  • It’s the first incident of racism on the field in the Prem since the Terry-Ferdinand affair.
  • The targets were Chelsea players, the club in the middle of the aforementioned affair.
  • It comes the week after the boycott of ‘Kick It Out’ t-shirts by several players.
  • It is being investigated by the FA.
  • It is being investigated by the police.
  • The man who made the police campaign is discussing a potential black players’ breakaway union.

Phew. For a minute, let’s also ignore Clattenburg’s refereeing of the Chelsea-Man Utd game that I have no doubt angered the Blues further. After looking into whether it’s actually true, I want to discuss the implications of this accusation. Why it represents a huge risk for Chelsea, and how it can be momentous in the fights for referee respect and a racism-free game.

What was said between these Clattenburg and Mikel?

The allegations are that Clattenburg racially abused John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata in the game on Sunday against Man Utd. My initial response to this was skeptical. I mean, really!? Whilst I may still hold a grudge against Clattenburg for Pedro Mendes’ non-goal against Man Utd in 2005, he is nonetheless a professional referee who has worked in the Premier League since 2004. He has had a few criticisms (which ref hasn’t?) but is generally regarded as one of the better referee’s in the country, especially considering he’s the 3rd youngest. My gut reaction was that it was fabricated and Chelsea had complained about him in bitterness. They were/are angry with some of his decisions in the United game and saw this as an oportunity to be the victims in a racism case. On reflection, I am willing to accept the adage that there is no smoke without fire and – with no evidence proving or disproving anything – that maybe Clattenburg did racially abuse Mikel and Mata. Maybe.

To be honest, I still find it hard to believe. According to Oriol Romeu, Mata heard nothing from Clattenburg, prompting the question who is it that’s actually making the allegation against him? Regarding Mikel, Clattenburg booked him for dissent – it seems odd that he would follow this up with further abuse. He had made his point to the player and put himself in the superior, authoritative position, which is generally what using racist language is an attempt to do for those who use it. Clattenburg may have spoken to Mikel, may have even had a go at him, but simply disciplining a black person does not make someone a racist. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I feel the aforementioned black players’ union would be a bad idea, as we run the risk of referees being too frightened of prosecution to reprimand or caution black players.

Back to the Clattenburg case, I mentioned earlier in this article that Chelsea are playing a risky game. It’s not hard to see why – if proven innocent, they have made an extremely serious, incorrect claim against a match official and tried to bring the refereeing body into disrepute for no reason at all. They will be made to look like fools and, rightfully, incur criticism. It’s hard to know what the repercussions would be, but it’s fair to say that the refereeing union would not look too kindly upon them. However, in doing this, Chelsea have opened the door for the FA to make a serious statement about either racism in football or respect towards referees.

The two most high-profile racism cases of recent years in the Premier League: Ferdinand-Terry and Evra-Suarez

Obviously this ‘statement’ depends on the outcome – Clattenburg’s innocence or culpability determines what the FA can stand up for. If he’s innocent, they can punish Chelsea to show clubs that undermining a referee is not allowed, potentially signalling the beginning of the end of player power. If he’s guilty, then the FA can make the big stand against racism that’s needed, especially after the widespread condemnation for only giving Terry a four match ban and a £220,000 fine (which is a week-and-a-half’s wages, by the way).

Let’s imagine that he’s convicted. Punishing Clattenburg can make him an example and scare other racists in the game, showing that that kind of behaviour is unacceptable. Furthermore, his status as a referee allows the FA to do this. It may be a poor sign of the times and reflective of the power dynamic shifting away from the governing bodies and to the teams, but if it were a player under this accusation the FA would be worried about the backlash from the club (and it’s fans) if they were to heavily punish him. Look at the Suarez incident. Liverpool distanced themselves from the FA and alienated themselves against the rest of the Premier League, displaying a discordant front on the battle against racism in football. The FA won’t have that worry with Clattenburg. Yes, he has the Referees’ Association’s support, but sadly no one else in the footballing world cares enough about referees to defend him. No fans are going to turn against anyone like they might if their club was involved. It’d ruin Clattenburg’s career, but if proven guilty the FA should exploit his lack of club support. If they do that they can set a precedent for future racism cases involving footballers, meaning the club involved cannot complain of mistreatment.

Scenes of players surrounding referee’s could be a thing of the past

On the other hand, let’s imagine he’s exonerated. The most likely repercussions won’t be anything Chelsea can’t handle: a bit of a hard time from the referee’s union and an FA fine. They’re too powerful a club to dock points from, and the FA may be lenient on a club trying to act against racism. But that’s not what should happen. The FA would have the chance to stand up to a big club and support referees, signalling that they value the human element to football that referees provide. They would prove their support to the Respect Campaign and eradicate scenes of footballers surrounding referee’s and chatting back. There would be no need for fines to managers who speak out against referees because they’d know that the entire FA would clamp down on them. There is the potential for the power in football to go back to the proper body, away from the clubs or individuals it doesn’t belong to.

If handled correctly, this situation is win-win. Due to sympathy and a general antipathy for Chelsea, Clattenburg will come out of this better if proven innocent, and he will be rightly punished if convicted. The only room for error in this incident is in the FA’s response to it. Not adequately punishing Clattenburg for racism or Chelsea for disrespect would be a colossal missed opportunity. Only time will tell if it gets to that stage.