London, Dec 22: England captain John Terry will be the first footballer to face a court in Britain on a charge of racially abusing an opponent, the most serious step yet in a crackdown on racism in the sport.
Prosecutors made the decision to charge Terry on Wednesday after studying footage that was broadcast live around the world in October, showing Terry apparently hurling abuse at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand during a Premier League match.
Terry has said his comments were taken out of context and vowed to fight the charges, after prosecutors declared the defender had constituted a “racially aggravated public order offense.”
Just a day earlier, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez, a Uruguay international, received an eight-match ban and 40,000-pound ($62,000) fine from the FA for racially abusing a Manchester United player during another match in October.
Although Suarez's abusive conduct is yet to be investigated by the police, anti-racism campaigners are hailing the twin-pronged actions as evidence that new weapons are being deployed against racism in soccer.
“It's a very important point in the history of campaigning against racism in football,” Kick It Out chairman Herman Ouseley told The Associated Press. “People who are very cynical—and a lot of black footballers have been right up until I think yesterday—think it's a waste of time (complaining about racism) because the campaign hasn't stopped these things from happening, it goes on, it's quiet, it's subtle and nothing ever gets done.
“It's quite important that (players) now feel a bit more confident that, although it has taken a while, due process with decisive action could well make a change.”
Racist abuse in European football is nothing new, although most high-profile cases have involved abusive chants from supporters toward opposing players—not on-field incidents.
While several campaigns have been launched in recent years to combat the problem, the sport's international governing body has a mixed record of success.
A wave of outrage was provoked by FIFA President Sepp Blatter last month when he downplayed the issue and suggested players involved in such spats should settle the issue with a handshake after the game.
“I think the problem has never gone away—it's just become more subtle and less obvious,” said Ouseley, a member of the House of Lords. “I think there is an awareness that more has to be done.”
The latest investigations in England come despite the country having made huge strides in largely eradicating the racial abuse of black players that blighted the game here in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Several black players in that era, including England and Liverpool winger John Barnes, faced racist abuse without the perpetuators being punished.
“It is easy for (the FA) to jump on the bandwagon now, but why didn't they do it in the ‘80s?” Barnes told the AP. “That's what gripes me ... now it's politically correct for them to get involved and make the right decision.”
The FA has yet to issue a ruling on the Terry case, saying it will wait for the police investigation to be completed first. Police and prosecutors became involved after a member of the public made a complaint against the defender, having seen footage of his comments.
“After careful consideration of all the evidence I am satisfied there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and it is in the public interest to prosecute this case,” Alison Saunders, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, said in a statement
Terry will have to appear at West London Magistrates' Court on Feb. 1 in a case that could threaten both his public image—worth millions in endorsements—and his international career.
Terry already lost the England captaincy once, ahead of the 2010 World Cup, after being embroiled in a sex scandal. While he regained the armband this year a guilty verdict would make it difficult for him to represent England at next summer's European Championship—especially since he often partners with Ferdinand's brother Rio in central defense.
Suarez was punished on Wednesday after an independent FA panel found that he directed racist abuse at Manchester United's black defender Patrice Evra.
However, unlike the Terry case, Suarez's abuse was not caught on camera and there has been no complaint to the police to trigger a criminal investigation.
Liverpool players issued a statement Wednesday saying they were “shocked and angered” by the ban, and that they supported their Uruguayan teammate.
Even the 48-year-old Barnes was critical toward the FA over that decision.
“They are opening a can of worms because we don't know what was said—it's one person's word against the other,” Barnes said. “It's wrong to ban Suarez for eight games.”
Like Suarez, Terry has consistently denied being a racist. During the verbal clash with Ferdinand, the Chelsea captain claimed he was repeating an accusation he felt had wrongly been made his opponent.
“I have never aimed a racist remark at anyone and count people from all races and creeds among my closest friends,” Terry said. “I will fight tooth and nail to prove my innocence.”
England is far from alone in Europe in having to combat discrimination.
The French football league has opened an inquiry after claims from Morocco midfielder Kamel Chafni that an assistant referee racially insulted him during Auxerre's 1-0 defeat at Brest on Saturday.
Bulgaria's national federation was fined £40,000 by UEFA after its fans directed racist abuse at England players during a Euro 2012 qualifying match in September.
But Luis Aragones held onto his job as Spain coach in 2005 after making racist remarks made about France striker Thierry Henry, landing a fine of just £3,0000.
“Racism is still there—endemic in this country and elsewhere,” Barnes said.
Ouseley pointed out that Poland and Ukraine, the co-hosts of Euro 2012, have also had problems with racism in the past, and that next summer's tournament will be a good indicator of whether they and other countries are taking the matter seriously.
“We know from the reports we've had back (that) there are going to be problems there,” Ouseley said. “They will make the right noises but will they do they right thing? Will they stop abuse?”