As Queens Park Rangers meet Chelsea in the FA Cup on Saturday, Ferdinand alone must decide how he handles his first encounter with Terry since the racism allegations
And so once more to top flight football, crucible of race relations debate in early 2012 Britain, amid suspicions that well-meaning bigwigs are preparing to mishandle another episode. What are we to make of a flurry of closely aligned articles suggesting that Queens Park Rangers are encouraging Anton Ferdinand to shake John Terry's hand before Saturday's FA Cup tie, which itself takes place just days before the Chelsea and England captain is up in court charged with a racially aggravated public order offence when directing abuse at Ferdinand?
QPR decline to comment on the reports, so let's hope they are misguided invention, because the prospect of Ferdinand's bosses attempting to gently manage the situation is troubling. We shall learn more about the facts of the case when it comes to court next week – Terry strongly denies the charge – but given the gesture will be read as Ferdinand's first wordless public comment on the matter, he should be allowed to reach his decision with the minimum of intervention, which includes pastoral advice that could end up feeling like pressure. It's his business, not his club's.
The FA is understood to be keen to see a handshake. At least this is not a Premier League tie, because one can only imagine the lengths to which Richard Scudamore's august outfit would go to achieve that end, thus emphasising the shiny harmony of its "product" to overseas purchasers. Unlike the Terry-Wayne Bridge handshake, which was a box office plotline of the sort of that stokes World Wrestling Entertainment, a stand‑off over an allegation of racism is less easy to package.
Of course, you can see the obvious reasoning behind what seems to be a concerted wish for the handshake to go ahead. Neither club wants trouble, and the match has been brought forward to midday on police advice, while prevailing wisdom has it that players must act responsibly to prevent volatile fan elements from acting irresponsibly.
But prevailing wisdom should always be subordinate in matters of conscience. If Ferdinand is indeed reluctant, then at best any guidance to shake hands would reek of the sanitising impulse which has seen Parliament Square cleared of protesters, lest any of the world's TV cameras – in town for the Olympics – should get the idea that London is anything other than united in its love for everything from various wars to the IOC and its corporate sponsors. At worst, it would epitomise the old shut-up-and-play attitude that seeks to keep athletes in their place and out of politics.
Alas, that attitude appears to be gaining traction again in some quarters. Since the initial storm over the Terry and Luis Suárez allegations subsided, there has been a drip-drip of increasingly apologist articles, most recently one on Spiked, apparently deeming pretty much any insult spewed within a stadium to be "passion" – surely the woolliest cliche in football – and a quintessential part of the game itself. To which a reasonable reply might be: since when? Extremist fan behaviour is nothing more than a late-1960s bolt-on to football, and no more part of its timeless essence than endless Super Sundays. Look at the pictures of the terraces in the 1950s, and the serried throngs of fans in their caps and overcoats. Without sticking my neck out, I'd hazard none of them were baying that Matt Busby was a paedophile or shouting at Jackie Milburn that they hope his kid got cancer. Yet were they all prawn sandwich-toting middle‑class newspaper columnists with no understanding of what makes football great?
But this is an argument used by defenders of a status quo which many black players voice unhappiness with – namely, that anyone who objects to such displays of "passion" is some rarefied broadsheet tosser who fails to understand that The Masses need the release of being able to bay racist epithets at people within the strict confines of football grounds. How grimly patronising – and not to broadsheet tossers. Not only does it fail to take into account the testimonies of working‑class black players who are degraded by such displays of "passion" – after all, what do those irrelevances know? – but is the sort of tin-eared, contrarian drivel spouted by those desperate to ingratiate themselves with those they see as football's tribal warriors, but who have never really expanded their student Marxist belief that sport is an opium of the people.
Those with a greater imagination move beyond such a narrow, essentially conservative view. A few years ago, the late, radical US sportswriter Lester "Red" Rodney gave an interview to one of his journalistic heirs, Dave Zirin. In it, former Daily Worker sports editor Rodney recalled how in the 30s the old guard at the communist newspaper had vetoed the idea of covering sport at all, but he persuaded them that people could be reached politically via sport. Oddly enough, almost every example Rodney gave of its ability to do so related to sport's role in fighting racial prejudice in society. Were this most principled of campaigners writing today, you can bet he wouldn't have been penning lofty articles explaining that using "black" as a derogatory term within a football ground is something to do with being working class and real and should be let well alone. My suspicion is he'd have treated the idea of "guidance" being offered to Anton Ferdinand with distinct misgiving.