John Terry will make soccer history for all the wrong reasons when he steps into a London courtroom Wednesday.
The captain of Chelsea in the English Premier League and the England national team must defend charges of committing a racially aggravated public order offense he is alleged to have made against opponent Anton Ferdinand of Queens Park Rangers on Oct. 23.
English soccer dates back a century and half, and never before has a player been prosecuted over words spoken on the field of play. While the maximum fine Terry can receive is $4,000 – a tiny fraction of his weekly wage – with no prospect of jail time, the case could have far-reaching repercussions.
If he is found guilty and finds himself with a criminal record, it would be virtually impossible for him to remain as part of the England squad, let alone be its captain. England’s Football Association has taken the strongest possible stance against racism, recently banning Liverpool’s Luis Suarez for eight games over words he aimed at Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.
Several members of the England team are black, and the FA has been outspoken in its criticism of rival fans that target its players on the road. Such a position could be compromised were it not to take action against Terry, should he be found guilty.
Furthermore, senior figures in English soccer voiced their outrage two months ago, when Sepp Blatter, president of world governing body FIFA, insisted soccer did not suffer from a racism problem.
[Podcast: Martin Rogers discusses the John Terry case]
Terry was stripped of the England captaincy once before. Two years ago he reportedly conducted an affair with the former girlfriend of national team colleague Wayne Bridge, and head coach Fabio Capello took swift action in replacing him as leader.
However, due to injuries to key players and his own fine form, Terry regained the armband soon after and has held it ever since. With the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine coming up in the summer, this saga could not have come at a worse time.
Another tricky conflict of timing was posed when the draw was made for the fourth round of the FA Cup, which will be held this weekend. Chelsea and London rival QPR were pulled out of the hat together, meaning Terry and Ferdinand will again go head-to-head.
Early suggestions that one or both players may withdraw from the game were quickly rebuffed, and several newspapers have reported Ferdinand may snub any pregame attempts to shake hands as a placatory gesture.
Prosecutors studied video of the initial incident, which appeared to show Terry saying two obscenities and the word "black." Terry has vowed to fight the charge “tooth and nail” and stated he is confident of proving his innocence. It is thought Terry will use Chelsea teammate Ashley Cole, a black player, as a character witness.
The Terry-Ferdinand saga adds intrigue to a local derby that would have held strong interest even without it. QPR is back in the top division of English soccer after a lengthy slump and is hoping for a continued upturn backed by big-spending owner Tony Fernandes.
Chelsea, meanwhile, has fallen well off the pace in the race for the EPL title and realistically needs a strong run in the knockout stages of the Champions League to put together a campaign that would satisfy billionaire owner Roman Abramovich.
Extra security and policing has been brought in for this cup match, with officers fearing the tension between the clubs may spark trouble. QPR has warned that it plans to use closed-circuit television cameras to identify potential troublemakers, while Chelsea’s management and players have remained tightlipped for fear of making incendiary comments.
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