Over the next few days and weeks, the men who run the Chelsea Football Club will have an interesting decision to make: What will they do about their captain, John Terry?

For those who came in late, Terry has been found guilty by an English Football Association (FA) commission of making racist remarks against a fellow player, Queens Park Rangers’ defender Anton Ferdinand, fined £220,000 (or 1.8 crore) and handed a four-match ban. A court had earlier this year acquitted him in a criminal case for lack of evidence; the FA panel, however, said it was “quite satisfied" that the offending words—“f***ing black c***"—“were said by way of insult".

Here’s the interesting bit. On the one hand you have Terry, not merely Chelsea’s captain but their soul, a one-team player whose skills and talismanic presence have been integral to the club’s successes in the past decade. On the other is the club, experiencing its most successful period ever, the reigning European champions and currently top of the Premier League points table. With England and Europe conquered, it’s seeking to expand its appeal, broaden its base in the global market.

So the question before Chelsea: Does John Terry remain captain? Is the offence serious enough to warrant the ultimate step of stripping him of the armband?

Anton Ferdinand. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP
Anton Ferdinand. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

Football exists in another world. It may be a multi-billion-dollar business but its underpinnings are raw, primeval, almost base human emotions; not for nothing did Desmond Morris call it the “Soccer Tribe". Other sports too are based on emotion but few in the mainstream—boxing, and football’s offshoots, such as the rugby variants—are as clearly and symbiotically linked to basic emotions. Those emotions are twofold: the emotions that run high on the field in 90 minutes of non-stop action and the immediate aftermath, and the emotions that exist among the fans, for whom the club is often more a way of life than merely another social institution. Much of what is said on the field, and in the dressing rooms, would violate the moral code of society; similarly, much of what is chanted in the stands is X-rated—embracing racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, laced with vitriol and sugar-coated with mordant humour and British wit.

Manchester United’s fans greet their Liverpool counterparts with chants of “Murderers", a reference to the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy in which 96 Liverpool fans died; the response they get is references to the 1958 Munich air disaster that killed a large part of the Manchester team. The most common chant hurled at Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, is “paedophile", a reference to his knack for spotting young talent. Arsenal fans taunt their north London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur (whose fan base is heavily Jewish) with hissing sounds to mimic the gas chambers. All’s fair on the terraces.

Because of this, football clubs tread a fine line between following the wider societal norms and upholding the unspoken, unwritten code of a testosterone-driven sport. It gets more complicated because of the relationship between player and fan—it’s like that between parent and offspring, unquestioning, unqualified and demanding.

Players crave affection, fans demand loyalty. The ties continue long after a player has left a club, unless the parting was on a sour note. Woe betide the club—as represented by its chairman, or directors, or even manager—that acts against a beloved player. Chelsea themselves have seen it recently—its young manager André Villas-Boas was sacked in March after trying to sideline the club’s senior players, including Terry. More famously, the great Dutchman Ruud Gullit, when he was manager of Newcastle United, took on the fans’ favourite, Alan Shearer; Gullit found himself jobless days after placing Shearer on the substitutes’ bench in a crucial match.

It’s a bit like Indian politics, where political parties weigh the pros of a scam-tainted leader (usually votes and vote banks) against the cons of his or her transgressions. Chelsea’s dilemma is similar to what the United Progressive Alliance faced with A. Raja and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), or what the Bharatiya Janata Party faces with its leaders in Karnataka, the former chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa and the Reddy brothers of Bellary. The charges are weighty but at the basic, grass-roots level, the perception could be markedly different—and any sanction against the individual could be a shot in the foot.

The most recent similar case is instructive. Last year, Liverpool player Luis Suárez was banned for eight matches and fined £40,000 for calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra “negro". Suárez sought to explain it as a difference in cultures—it was an accepted manner of speaking in his native Uruguay. His teammates and manager closed ranks around him; in the match after the ban was announced, his teammates wore T-shirts with Suárez’s picture as a gesture of support and his manager, Kenny Dalglish, was unequivocal in backing the player. Public criticism grew and, several months later, the club—prompted, it is believed, by the club’s sponsors, Standard Chartered—forced player and manager to apologize.

Chelsea are a club looking to become the new Liverpool, translating their considerable on-field successes on to, literally, foreign fields—cracking the markets in Asia and Africa to build up their global fan base, as the likes of Manchester United and Real Madrid have done and Barcelona are doing. Again, it’s a tricky situation: The charge of racism might be of concern to Samsung, Adidas and Audi, the club’s major sponsors, but would it really matter to potential fans in Girgaum or Gurgaon, Beijing or Bali?

To be tribal or to be 21st century. How Chelsea—the byword for swinging, swish, fashionable London—deal with their captain could tell us whether, or when, football will shed its more abhorrent habits and embrace a less corrosive future.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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