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Sunset for the Golden Generation

John Terry's racial-abuse trial and the end of an era in English soccer

In case you couldn’t tell from the title, In the Matter of Football Association Disciplinary Proceedings Between: The Football Association (Applicant) -and- John George Terry (Respondent): Ruling of the Full Regulatory Commission Following the Substantive Disciplinary Hearing Held Between 24th and 27th September 20121 is an amazing document. If you’re a soccer fan, you already know what this is about, but if not, here’s the history: On October 23, 2011, during the course of a Premier League match between QPR and Chelsea, superstar Chelsea defender and then-England captain John Terry, who is white, directed a racial insult toward QPR defender Anton Ferdinand, who is biracial. The incident was captured on camera with at least a hey–let’s–hire–lip readers level of clarity. It immediately prompted one of English soccer’s periodic micro-apocalypses. Terry was stripped of his national-team captaincy by the FA. Fabio Capello, England’s high-profile manager, resigned in protest. Crown prosecutors brought racial harassment charges against Terry.2 Terry pleaded not guilty, not because he denied he’d said the words but because he claimed he’d phrased them as a question, like, Whoa, hang on, did you think I just called you _____? Because I totally didn’t! The magistrate found him not guilty on the grounds that not even the most expert lip readers can see question marks. The FA then launched its own independent inquiry, charging Terry with “abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour” including “a reference to the ethnic origin and/or colour and/or race of Ferdinand.” The FA commission found Terry’s all-a-big-misunderstanding defense implausible and/or contrived and/or ludicrous, fined him £220,000, and suspended him for four matches. Terry retired from international soccer in a kind of huffy disgrace.

The English football media, as you might expect, found the whole thing mildly intriguing.

Then, last Friday, the FA released its account of the case, the Ruling of the Full Regulatory Commission Following the Substantive Disciplinary etc. etc., and it makes for bizarre and fascinating reading. There’s a chapter near the end of Ulysses in which Joyce frames a bit of happenstance everyday life as a question-and-answer catechism; it’s a strange effect, because the super-rational form (Q&A full of scientific terminology) is comically at odds with the spontaneous drift of the content (two guys take a walk, pee on a tree, etc.). In the same way, there’s something a little mind-altering about seeing the hot chaos of a soccer match translated into the composed paragraphs of a committee brief. We start out with an unfortunate encounter:

1.3 Shortly after Mr. Terry had got to his feet, he barged into Mr. Ferdinand with his shoulder. The latter reciprocated with a shoulder barge of his own and said “what are you doing?” Mr. Terry momentarily appears to kick out at Mr. Ferdinand on the film footage. Shortly afterwards, as Chelsea were attacking, the Referee stopped play after one of his Assistants had brought to his attention the altercation between Mr. Terry and Mr. Ferdinand. A free-kick was awarded to QPR. As they were still within close proximity of one another, Mr. Terry called Mr. Ferdinand “a cunt” and made a gesture with his hand across his nose, implying that Mr. Ferdinand’s breath smelt. The Referee intervened, as did at least one Chelsea player.

Which quickly escalates:

1.4 Mr. Terry then proceeded to run back towards the Chelsea half in order to take up a defensive position and await the free kick. For a time, he had his back to Mr. Ferdinand. Mr. Ferdinand started to move up the pitch in the direction of the half-way line and shouted out at Mr Terry, “how can you call me a cunt, you shagged your team mate’s missus, you’re the cunt.” Mr. Ferdinand also made a slow fist pump gesture with his right hand, suggesting sex (a reference accompanying what he said). Once he was back in the Chelsea half of the pitch, Mr. Terry turned round to face the play and saw the fist gesture that Mr. Ferdinand was making, and which was clearly directed at him.

Leading to the moment of crisis:

1.5 At this juncture, there is no dispute on his part that Mr. Terry used the following words (although Mr. Ferdinand claims not to have heard them at the time):

fuck off, fuck off, … fucking black cunt, fucking knob-head.

There is also no doubt that Mr. Terry said something after “fuck off, fuck off“, but before “fucking black cunt, fucking knob-head.” The available film footage of the incident, which was taken from different camera locations, shows another Chelsea player — John Obi Mikel from one angle, and Ashley Cole from another — briefly obscuring Mr. Terry’s face as he uttered the missing word or words. There is a dispute as to what they were. The significance of this will be discussed in due course.

So, yeah! Fun game, soccer. Lots of good exercise, only occasional yearlong multi-phase racial-abuse scandals culminating in bureaucratic reports that read like excerpts from experimental novels.

To get the obvious thing out of the way: I have no idea what John Terry said to Anton Ferdinand between his second “fuck off” and his first “fucking black cunt.” I do not, personally, believe Terry’s defense. I am glad he was fined and punished. I also have some not-fully-reconciled doubts about whether it’s wise to send the law after a person for words spoken during a heated moment on an athletic field.3 But everything about this case was so overblown and horrible that it kind of defeats any way you might feel about it. I mean, you could argue that the trial itself was simultaneously completely necessary and a total miscarriage of justice: If you’re a country, you pretty much absolutely cannot have the captain of your national soccer team yelling “fucking black cunt” at an opponent on television; on the other hand, people say terrible, dumb things when they’re angry, and no one seems to think Terry is actually racist.4 On the other other hand, maybe a four-game ban actually feels a little light? Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was banned eight games — but not subjected to a criminal trial — for racially abusing Patrice Evra last year. So who knows. If the professional yelling of sports opinions is something that appeals to you, this case is made-to-order; if not, the whole thing probably feels like the crass nightmare celebrity culture had when it toured Parliament and took the wrong blood-pressure medication. “Oooh, not good,” a friend e-mailed me when I told her I was writing about Terry, and yes, that is pretty much the final word.

What I keep thinking, whenever fresh Terry news slithers past, is that when the history of this era of soccer is written, the matter of the Football Association (Applicant) -and- John George Terry (Respondent) ought to mark the official end of England’s Golden Generation. Because there was a moment — this really happened! — when the “England’s Brave John Terry” nickname wasn’t at all ironic; when he, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Owen, et al. looked like plausible sports heroes who were going to accomplish great things. Think back to, say, 2004, through around the day in 2006 when Wayne Rooney’s fourth metatarsal fractured. We believed, kind of, that Gerrard was a local boy made good who went drinking with Liverpool fans after matches. We thought Jamie Carragher really was a selfless fighter, that Beckham was a leader, that Owen could still recapture his form. Joe Cole was going to bring Continental flair to Chelsea, remember? They weren’t favorites to win the World Cup, but they were at least going to be comfortably elite for a long time; and more important, they bled English oak, never gave up, and commanded legitimate admiration. They were exciting. The media construct seemed real, or at least real-ish.

Of course, many of the Golden Generation players had amazing success with their club teams. Lampard and Terry won multiple Premier League titles, a handful of FA Cups, and a Champions League trophy; Beckham won eight league titles in three different countries; Gerrard won one of the most dramatic European Cup finals of all time. At the international level, though, they were constantly hyped above the level of their talent while constantly performing beneath it. Their England team was better known for failing to qualify for Euro 2008, for WAG culture, for “can Lampard play with Gerrard”–type meme-kerfuffles, and for scandal than for anything they won. Terry, even before the racial-abuse charges, had been caught in an affair with the mother of one of his teammates’ children; Gerrard (“went drinking with Liverpool fans”) was arrested after a bar fight; Ashley Cole cheated on his pop-star wife, theatrically betrayed Arsenal to move to Chelsea, and became maybe the most hated footballer on earth simply for having his personality. And so on.

The Golden Generation was maybe the purest experiment ever conducted in how thoroughly the mechanics of celebrity can fuck up the public lives of the people around whom they operate.5 Can you imagine how indulged John Terry must have been, by everyone he met, in the mid-2000s? How does your ego not run away with you, if you’re never told no? If you’re measuring your weekly paycheck in Bentleys while being called a hero everywhere you go? And so eventually you take things too far, or don’t live up to people’s (escalatingly unreasonable) expectations — you don’t qualify for Euro 2008, and a story starts to circulate that you’re sleeping with your wife’s 16-year-old sister6 — and the switch flips from worship to loathing, and suddenly you’re “embattled,” the media is airing your dirty laundry, and you find yourself one step outside Sextapeville. Or worse. By about 2008, most of what seemed good about the Golden Generation had been overwritten by an aura of besieged trashiness. Terry’s transformation from valiant captain to aggrieved racist was — even if neither image really matched who he was — the fitting culmination of the decline of the whole group.

There’s something inexpressibly diminished about most of them now, both as players (they’re getting old) and as popular icons. David Beckham7 seems like a piece of enterprise software that’s still running even though no one remembers how to log in. From Rio Ferdinand’s online presence, you’d get the impression that he’s become a weird recluse, padding around his mansion, putting his kids to bed, and fighting with Piers Morgan on Twitter.8 Half these guys are at odds with the other half: Ashley Cole defended Terry during the racial-abuse scandal with some suspiciously amorphous testimony, which alienated Ferdinand, which outraged … blah etc. Half of them are spending more and more time watching matches from the sidelines, no longer integral to their teams.

Over the next few days, Terry has to decide whether to appeal the FA’s ruling or pay the fine and accept his punishment. It is “understood,” by the people who understand these things in newspaper articles, that he feels wronged and wants to appeal, but that his “advisers” are pressuring him to apologize and try to move on. (Those autobiographies aren’t going to ghostwrite themselves, or something.) England plays San Marino in a World Cup qualifier on Friday, and Cole — who recently apologized for tweeting that the FA is “a bunch of twats” — will (it is understood) probably not be picked. For most of the Golden Generation, the last 15 years will probably seem like the high point of their lives. The sunset looks like a giant red card. The world keeps turning.

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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