"Extraordinary" is the word used by English Premier League referee Mark Clattenburg to explain his verbal clash with Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel on Sunday, and extraordinary English soccer's latest racism controversy most certainly is.
Clattenburg stands accused of subjecting Mikel to a racist insult during Chelsea's 3-2 defeat to Manchester United, an explosive and incident-packed match between the league's two top teams that appears to have been marred by an unfortunate series of officiating mistakes.
Yet, while Clattenburg has already been taken off the list for this weekend's matches as Football Association chiefs hurriedly arranged an investigation process, this is less an indicator of how seriously England takes its soccer, but instead of how much of an incendiary topic racism has become to followers of the game and those who earn their living inside its confines.
From the moment Chelsea's John Terry was accused of calling Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand a "black [expletive]" nearly 13 months ago, racism and the battle against it has occupied an almost permanent place in British media discussion.
While racism should never, ever be an issue to take lightly, for some, especially newer followers of the sport who grew up in the United States, there is some surprise at the level of attention it has been given, even overshadowing the build-up to and the aftermath of the biggest game of the season so far.
Every aspect of the Terry incident, and of the recent protest by some black players in refusing to wear T-shirts supporting an anti-racism campaign as they felt not enough was being done, has been reported in full detail, even down to some of the trivialities such as which player will shake hands with which opponent, or not.
But this is no media creation. It is a multi-layered saga that links back to a time when the beautiful game could be hideously ugly, when the English public didn't much like English soccer and social ills were perpetuated in the stadiums and even on the fields of play of the national sport.
The reason it is talked about now and scrutinized and analyzed with as much detail as a defensive formation, the reason it is taken so seriously, is because of a desperation to cut ties with the bleak days of the 1970s and '80s.
Those were times when soccer became a haven for human behavior at its most unpleasant and most bigoted and when tens of thousands of fans and families were driven away from the game because it became entwined with violence and thuggery.
Many modern fans know nothing of such matters, which read like an apocalyptic disaster fantasy or, at least, a scourge from a long-gone era. Yet even now we are just one generation removed from the worst of the troubles, and there is a direct familial link to the current focus on racism and the period when it was at its horrific worst.
Jason Roberts, a forward with EPL club Reading, was one of the key figure behind recent the symbolic T-shirt boycott. He knows better than most how far English soccer has come from its former racist roots – and why it must never be allowed to regress.
Roberts' uncle is Cyrille Regis, who was one of the first high-profile black English soccer players during a successful career that began in 1977. When Regis was selected to play for the England national team in the early 1980s, he was sent a bullet through the mail.
He lined up alongside fellow black players Brendan Batson and Laurie Cunningham for West Bromwich Albion during a golden era for the club. At the time, one black player was a rarity, but three on the same team was unheard of. The Three Degrees, as they became known, had some serious game too, almost helping West Brom snatch the English league title ahead of Liverpool and European champions Nottingham Forest in 1981.
Amidst it all, they were subjected to a level of racist abuse that would create utter outrage if repeated today.
Cunningham once had a knife thrown at him during an away game, but the matter was not considered important enough to include in the referee's report. Opposition fans threw bananas, thousands at a time made monkey chants whenever they touched the ball, while singing songs of hatred such as one evil verse called "n*****, n*****, n*****, lick my boots."
"My wife hardly went to games," Batson told me years ago. "People were just allowed to hurl that abuse with total impunity, so people just said 'I'm not going,' not just black people but other supporters as well."
Hooligans roamed the terraces, many with extremist ties. The National Front, dismayed at how black citizens were being allowed equal rights as whites in society, protested outside soccer grounds.
Gangs of "fans" known as firms beat the daylights out of each other in mass fights at pre-arranged locations. In society, those of black or Asian heritage had daily cause to fear for their safety as groups of young white males indulged in sickening hobbies known as "n***** bashing" or "Paki-bashing."
A few years earlier, the political constituency of Smethwick, in which West Brom's Hawthorns stadium is situated, saw anti-immigration extremist Peter Griffiths elected as representative to Parliament after his supporters voiced displease at a rival party's policies by posting bills bearing the slogan: "If you want a n***** for a neighbor, vote Labour."
For Regis, Batson and Cunningham, the insults and racism served to strengthen their determination and their bond, and the success of the trio paved the way for the generation of black players that followed to believe they could thrive in the professional game.
"We used to get 10-15,000 fans shouting racist abuse," Regis said. "How do you cope? You fight with what's in your armory and for me that was my talent.
"I think it was at West Ham where we had bananas thrown at us and Brendon picked one up and ate it and showed contempt for their attitude."
Soccer has moved on and while still not perfect things are drastically different in present times. Inappropriate chanting still takes place; a year ago, Liverpool's Luis Suarez, like Terry, was accused of issuing a racist epithet during an EPL game, an incident that cost him an eight-game suspension. But those sort of incidents are fewer and farther between.
Still, those buried memories are rightly never far from the consciousness, especially with the likes of Batson working with the Professional Footballers Association, with Regis as a leading soccer agent – positions it is unlikely a black man could have held back when they were playing.
The England soccer squad at this summer's European Championships featured eight black players, yet the sentiment in English soccer is not to pat itself on the back for progress made, but to take the final step and ensure that racism can never take its festering stranglehold on the game again.
That could be bad news for Clattenburg, an experienced referee who took charge of the Olympic Games men's final this summer. If he is found to have made a racially-charged remark to Mikel and referred to another player as a "Spanish expletive," his days as an EPL referee are likely over.
For his part, Clattenburg says he "welcomes" the chance to clear his name and reportedly will rely on the fact that he was wearing a two-way microphone as evidence in his favor.
Some have sympathized with him, correctly pointing out that referees must withstand verbal abuse from players and fans on a weekly basis.
But given where English soccer has come from, and where it never wants to return to, a zero-tolerance policy is the only answer.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Mark Clattenburg
- English Premier League
- Manchester United
- Brendan Batson
- Cyrille Regis