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Joan Smith: There's more than race in this case of handbags

Almost 1.4 million women and girls play football regularly in England. Women's football is the third largest team sport in the country after men's football and men's cricket, and 843 women have trained as referees. So what, I wonder, did they make of last week's events in a London court, when two of the country's top footballers admitted that they use demeaning and contemptuous language about women?

The case hinged on an accusation of racism against the Chelsea and former England captain, John Terry. In confusing evidence about a confrontation between Terry and the QPR defender Anton Ferdinand during a match in October last year, Terry's QC said his client sarcastically used the word "black" because he thought Ferdinand had accused him of using it. Terry was cleared after receiving support from the Chelsea and England player Ashley Cole and the former Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho.

I expected Terry to be acquitted and I'm happy to accept he isn't racist. What I'm not happy about – and I suspect a lot of women and girls who play football aren't either – is the reflexive misogyny highlighted by the trial. Brace yourself, for here is Ferdinand giving his version of the spat: "He called me a cunt, and I called him a cunt back." Ferdinand said he went on to explain to Terry why he deserved the insult, claiming that "you shagged your team-mate's missus".

I've never believed that this unedifying series of exchanges has much to do with race. It's in a tradition of confrontations in which professional footballers – some of the most widely admired and highest-paid sportsmen in the world – reveal that the very worst insult they can think of is a slang word for the vagina. Slang names for the penis also get used on the pitch but they're much more ambiguous – I'm sure some players are actually quite proud of that part of their anatomy – but no man wants to be compared to a vagina. It's a way of attacking a rival's masculinity, and that takes us straight to "honour".

In this hyper-masculine world, a man's "honour" is a fragile thing and he has to defend it at all costs. The then French captain, Zinedine Zidane, was sent off during the 2006 World Cup Final for head-butting an Italian player who called his sister a "whore", and Zidane refused to apologise for years. Players claim to be defending their female relatives, but what's really wounded is their pride. In this context, having an affair with a team-mate's wife or girlfriend would be unacceptable not because it involves deception, but because it invades another man's territory.

Terry and his club will be hugely relieved at the outcome of his trial, but it's no vindication of professional football in this country. In a breathtaking aside after the match at Loftus Road, Terry and Ferdinand met in the dressing-room and apparently agreed that their row was "just handbags, innit". It isn't: players, clubs and the FA should hang their heads in shame. Or do they really care so little about the poisonous misogyny at the heart of the professional game?

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