Lightning, it appears, does strike twice. Two years to the day after Fabio Capello stripped John Terry of the England captaincy, the FA through its chairman, David Bernstein, made the same decision in far more controversial and emotive circumstances amid the allegations of racism currently surrounding Terry and his July court hearing. And so for the second time in two years, England face the prospect of a divided and distracted camp ahead of a major tournament, because of the alleged actions of one player.
Looking at this case, one needs to separate the on-field implications of the FA’s decision from the wider consequences off it. The FA, so often lampooned by the vocal Fleet Street press pack for its blundering ways, indecision and general incompetence, should be lauded for this decision. In recent years it has, for all its perceived dithering, been outspoken on the need to eradicate the stain of racism from football. It has supported the Kick It Out! campaign well, and while Sepp Blatter was making the ridiculous assertion that racial vilification on the pitch could be forgotten with an amicable handshake after any match, the FA was busy investigating John Terry and Liverpool’s Luis Suarez following allegations of racist abuse.
Taking the captaincy off John Terry therefore firms up the FA as a leader in this area. Certainly, compared to numerous other European nations – the Royal Spanish Football Federation’s inaction when its coach Luis Aragones was caught out making racist remarks against Thierry Henry springs to mind – it can consider itself a positive agent of change. And reflect on this scenario: if the FA hadn’t taken its course of action, how would it look taking a moral high ground if England’s black players were abused by spectators in Poland and Ukraine at Euro 2012? It would be less a position of high ground than one of being mired in a moral swamp, and the calls of hypocrisy would be deafening. For all of that, it must be pointed out that John Terry has not been proven guilty as yet; for his part, he vociferously denies all allegations and is said to be furious about having the captaincy taken from him. But when it comes to public figures, perception frequently takes precedence over reality, and it is for that reason that David Bernstein and the FA is morally correct in taking its tough stance.
And so to the practical issues now facing the England team. Just as the public perception of John Terry is crucial for the FA, so it is for the England dressing room. Reports from English newspapers such as The Guardian suggested that the atmosphere was none too friendly when the squad was last together for the friendly matches against Spain and Sweden following the original incident between Terry and Anton Ferdinand, a QPR player. There has to be serious question marks, then, about whether senior England players would have been prepared to continue into Euro 2012 under captain Terry. Anton’s older brother Rio, who (when fit) partners Terry in central defense, was unimpressed by the court’s decision to delay the trial, as his Twitter account can attest to. In this sense, the FA’s decision is sensible in attempting to avert a potentially explosive dressing room at the European Championship.
It is naïve to believe, though, that simply taking the plastic armband away from Terry will remove all tensions within the England squad. For as long as Terry remains in the team while his trial is unfinished, division will surely continue. John Terry’s very presence in the squad must now be in doubt for that very reason. For Fabio Capello, it is another thoroughly unwanted sideshow in the lead up to a tournament that will decide his legacy as England manager. In 2010, the controversy surrounding Terry cost him Wayne Bridge, who felt he could not compete alongside Terry after his alleged dalliance with Bridge’s girlfriend. Now, Capello could be forced to leave aside Terry who is, for all his faults, still a powerful presence in central defence and for whom there are no major candidates for replacements. Were Terry to depart, Micah Richards would surely be in the frame to finally break into the squad (Capello has hitherto shown reluctance in giving the Manchester City defender a sustained run with England). Otherwise, Richards’ City teammate Joleon Lescott could be considered, though his form this season has been somewhat patchy. Away from that pair, cover looks worryingly threadbare. The whole situation seems a Catch-22 for the England manager: discord and enmity with John Terry’s presence, a fragile back line without.
Whatever the outcome, Capello will again be scratching his head at the attention on who captains the England football team. The significance of the captain in football is far less than in other sports such as rugby, where only the captain can speak to the referee during games, or cricket, where the captain directs team tactics. In England, the position has acquired a symbolic meaning and political importance, more so than in other big football nations – in Capello’s homeland of Italy, for example, the position of captain automatically goes to the player with the most international caps rather than being determined by merit of character. It is a focus he would clearly rather do without, with the press wasting no time in debating who Terry’s successor should be following Friday’s events. Rio Ferdinand has ruled himself out, but everybody from Steven Gerrard to Ashley Cole and Scott Parker has been suggested as a replacement.
Whether it is right or wrong for the England captaincy to be given special significance is a moot point. The fanfare surrounding the new captain – whoever that may be – will continue until England’s tournament opener against France on June 11. And while the FA is to be applauded for taking its firmly anti-racism stance, for England fans it is another build-up of controversy and division taking centre stage.
They must surely long for the halcyon days of 2002, when David Beckham’s left metatarsals were the sole pre-tournament talking point!