Referee Mark Clattenburg, racism in football, and why this is one act that just can't be cleaned up

Another week, another row over who said what on a football pitch. What football needs now more than ever is a period of calm and less recourse to expensive lawyers
  • @davidhepworth

I don’t know exactly what football has got in store for us this weekend.

But I guarantee one thing. At some point, a commentator on a gantry, a hard-pressed hack in a windswept press box or, most likely, an over-compensated former player in a nice shirt in the Match of the Day studio will adopt a mask of sad disapproval and say, “If only we could get this over with and focus on the football.”

Every real football fan knows that nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever “this” is that he wishes we could get over, we can’t get enough of it. We thrive on “this”, the more ludicrous and extreme form of “this” the better. In fact, whenever we hear the radio commentator say “this is not what we want to see”, we go looking for a TV, because that’s precisely what we do want to see. Things going wrong.

Association football is just a game but the hoopla surrounding the modern professional version of it is now a branch of the entertainment industry and, what’s more, the only branch that is consistently entertaining. Everywhere else, the chaos has been managed out of the system. Being chaos incarnate, football actually thrives on it.

I was at a music awards show the other night, wondering why the Keith Moons of my youth have been replaced by the Chris Martins of today. I found myself wondering what Mario Balotelli was up to that evening. This time last year, he was letting off fireworks in his bathroom. There’s a man after Moonie’s heart.

I don’t buy this post-Olympics idea that it’s time the game cleaned up its act. In fact, New Improved Football World (motto – “like the real world but madder”) actually makes recession more bearable. Here we are telling the kids they can’t have the central heating on until Christmas Day but still we can warm ourselves with the knowledge that highly paid lawyers are trying to work out how much additional offence was caused by calling somebody a black C-word rather than just the common or garden variety.

We can see how Wayne Rooney’s missus dressed their little boy for Halloween because she kindly tweeted his picture. We note that luscious, pouting Robbie Savage has rounded out his evening at the Pride of Britain awards by partying with a luscious, pouting lingerie tycoon. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has generously invited the TV cameras into his lovely home and unblushingly pointed at the huge portrait of himself dominating the room. We Tottenham fans have been able to amuse ourselves laughing at the two Arsenal players who threw their shirts into the crowd this week and then had to ask for them back to complete the game.

Just when we thought we’d seen every form of football scandal, up popped a fresh one last week when Chelsea player John Obi Mikel made an official complaint that the referee Mark Clattenburg had used “inappropriate language” to him during their game against Manchester United. This is rich. Having tolerated abuse at the top of the game for years, football now finds itself in a world of “isms” where it suddenly has to decide which variety of abuse is acceptable and which isn’t.

Even the commentators able to overlook the fact that this accusation was made by a sore loser found Mikel’s charge hard to believe. Clattenburg may have a haircut better suited to a member of a boyband and doesn’t appear to have ticked the “no-publicity” box; nonetheless, any referee who repaid a fraction of the abuse he gets from players would be handing in his resignation from the sport and no returns. Chelsea, who appeared strangers to shame over the John Terry case, are backing their player again, which probably means more homes in Tuscany for m’learned friends.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, a wise man when not beating the touchline with his fists, said this week that all this lawyering was not in the game’s interest. He’s right. He knows you can’t apply the rules of the real world to the crazy circus that football has become.

Of all the naive ideas that football folk are prone to, none is more naive than the idea that if you could only establish the facts of a matter then the remedy would be plain. Technology, they cry. It works in these other sports. If it does, it’s because, unlike football, those other sports are not played in a state of almost operatic exasperation and they don’t have dissimulation and deceit coursing through their veins. Cheating is hard wired into top-class football. When it comes to going down in the box to get penalties, it’s actually coached.

All the attempts to impose order on this chaos, whether in the form of salary caps or financial fair play or goal-line technology, are probably doomed. What’s needed in the current crisis is a few calming words from the right quarters and a bit less recourse to lawyers. The game needs to be put on a simmer for a couple of weeks. It will boil over again soon enough. I can’t wait.

David Hepworth is a publisher, writer and broadcaster

Twitter: @davidhepworth