Chelsea defender John Terry was accused of using a racial slur against Anton Ferdinand on Oct. 23, 2011. Within 48 hours, first-year manager Andre Villas-Boas launched an impassioned defense of the club captain.
That decision was a pivotal moment for the player, manager and club. It may well determine the fates of all three, not only for this season, but in the years to come.
Villas-Boas came to Chelsea with the reputation as the next “boy-wonder” of soccer managers. In his first (and only) year as manager of Portugal’s FC Porto, he guided the club to a historic treble. He lifted the Liga Segares (first division), Taça de Portugal (Portuguese Cup) and UEFA Europa League trophies, establishing himself as the hottest managerial property in Europe.
He was just 33-years-old when Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich paid Porto a record £13.3 million ($21 million) to release him from his contract. He took one world soccer’s most precarious jobs on June 22, 2011.
When a new boss joins any organization, it’s only natural that he’s met with skepticism. But Villas-Boas’ project initially had momentum, and the Blues were flying high in the early part of the 2011-12 season. Chelsea stormed through the first two-plus months of the season. It was a genuine contender for the Premier League title when Terry did or did not take a heated on-field confrontation with Ferdinand in a racially abusive direction.
Terry is nothing short of an iconic player at Chelsea. He is the embodiment of the club’s rise from a team of also-rans to a genuine force in European soccer. When he was accused of racial abuse, it threatened to drive a wedge between the massively influential Terry and the rest of his team — a group that includes no less than 10 other players of African descent.
The accusation was so serious that Terry went to see Ferdinand in the Queens Park Rangers dressing room after the game. He brought teammate Ashley Cole with him, and discussed the matter with Ferdinand in front of 10 others, according to the Mail.
“Anton and I spoke for 10 minutes in the dressing room after the game and there is no issue between us,” Terry said at the time. “It’s finished.”
Ferdinand and Terry reportedly buried the hatchet, but when video evidence emerged (hours later) that shows Terry making what appears to be a racial slur, the case exploded into the news cycle.
Also, someone made an anonymous complaint against Terry to the police, and he now faces charges of a racial abuse in civil court. Terry denied the charges then, and still does to this day.
Terry declined to participate in practice the next day. In his absence, “the incident was discussed extensively among certain players at the club’s Cobham training ground,” the Mail report said.
The relationship between Terry and Villas-Boas goes back to 2004, when Villas-Boas was a disciple of then Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. The allegations surfaced that Sunday night, and the manager backed his captain in no uncertain terms two days later. It left no room to maneuver on the issue.
“He [Terry] has put out his statement and we fully back John,” Villas-Boas said. “John is a player who (represents) this country to the highest level internationally. He is a player of great responsibilities.
“It’s just a misunderstanding and something blown out of all proportion. People who represent this country [England] should have better and fuller support.”
In hindsight, the manager’s words can seem awkward, defensive, and even paranoid. But it had the immediate effect of diffusing the situation in the near term. The media scrutiny blew away, but the stench of bigotry lingered inside the Chelsea dressing room.
The day after Villas-Boas’ defense, Chelsea beat Everton 2-1. But on the following Saturday, (four days after Villas-Boas backed Terry) it conceded five goals in losing to Arsenal. Terry’s slip that gifted the winning goal to Robin van Persie was more than just an on-field error. It was an artists’ rendition of the exact moment when four-plus months of misery came to Terry, Villas-Boas, and Chelsea
His popularity is at an all-time low, as the scandal is partly to blame for England’s national team falling apart just a few months before the European Championship. Chelsea is in full-blown crisis, and Villas-Boas faces a mutiny in the dressing room.
When the young manger chose to back a club icon (who was just a few years his junior) he was managing by the book. Most managers would have done the same in his situation. He assessed the situation, took a firm stance, and may have lost the unconditional support of some of his players in the process.
But there’s no book to tell him how to deal with so divisive an issue. In a results-driven business like top-flight soccer, there’s no hiding from the fact that the club has lost its way since late October. In four short months, Chelsea has gone from title-contender to tale of woe. It just might have started when Villas-Boas slipped on that political banana peel.