x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Language could be answer to foul issue

Will Batchelor asks could the latest racism drama be a misunderstanding of accent?

Mark Clattenburg, middle, was accused using a racial slur towards John Obi Mikel, right, during the game on Sunday.
Mark Clattenburg, middle, was accused using a racial slur towards John Obi Mikel, right, during the game on Sunday.

The accent of the north east of England has been much derided over the years, its strangulated vowels and machine gun rhythms often used as shorthand in British television drama or comedy for "poorly educated and emotionally volatile".

As well as sounding comical to some it can also be tough to decipher, even for Englishmen. I once asked a taxi driver for directions to St James' Park and was lost after the first two words. Apparently "gan doon" means "go down". Who knew?

By the end of next week, however, the entire nation - not least those in west London - might have good reason to love the humble Geordie accent: it could save English football's skin.

The allegation that Mark Clattenburg, the elite referee, used a racial slur against the Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel during Sunday's bad-tempered match against Manchester United is utterly disastrous.

Never mind that nothing has yet been proven: the allegation alone causes untold damage because it cannot be resolved without creating a damning indictment of either the English game or one of its most successful clubs of the modern era.

If Chelsea's complaint is upheld, and Clattenburg is found to have called the Nigerian player a "monkey", it will leave not just the 37-year-old referee's reputation in shreds.

The notion of a top referee in such a cosmopolitan league being a closet racist could irreparably tarnish the Premier League's international appeal.

As the cases of John Terry and Luis Suarez have proven, for a player to make such an error is bad but far from fatal.

Fans understand that footballers are selected for their playing ability, and that a pleasant personality or working brain is just a happy bonus.

Referees, on the other hand, are supposed to be razor sharp and rational even - nay, especially - in the heat of battle. And Clattenburg is arguably the second most important referee in England, after Howard Webb.

He officiated at the men's football final at the 2012 Olympic Games, and is a poster boy for the modern professional.

If the governing bodies cannot find a poster boy who does not spout racist venom when the going gets tough, they might as well pack up and go home.

The other outcome of the dual investigation (one by the Metropolitan Police, one by the English Football Association) is that Clattenburg is cleared of calling Mikel a monkey. That would mean that neither Mikel, nor the two players who supported him in written statements, was telling the truth.

Inevitably, fans would look at Chelsea's "form" for intimidating referees not just on the pitch but also via official complaints.

In 2006, three Chelsea players - John Terry, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole - claimed referee Graham Poll had threatened to "sort them out" and "teach them a lesson". They later retracted the allegation.

There was also the unfounded allegation by Jose Mourinho in 2005 that the referee Anders Frisk had somehow colluded with the Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard.

The Swede retired abruptly shortly after the match, citing the death threats he had received from Chelsea fans that made him "too scared to ever go out on a football pitch again".

For Chelsea to be suspected of trying to bully referees in this way would be bad enough. To be suspected of doing so by manipulating the hot potato of racism would be even worse. And to use that hot potato so soon after standing by their captain Terry despite his actual, proven racial abuse of Anton Ferdinand (he was cleared in court but found guilty by the FA) would be simply beyond the pale.

As it happens, I believe the second outcome is far more likely. There is no visual evidence against Clattenburg, as there was against Terry, and his assistant referees have already indicated they heard nothing untoward through their earpieces.

This means that Chelsea must find a way to withdraw the allegation while saving face. And that is where the Geordie accent comes in.

Clattenburg was raised in Consett, County Durham, 15 miles or so from Newcastle. He speaks with a Geordie twang.

Since even other English people sometimes struggle to understand the Geordie accent, it seems perfectly feasible to me that a Nigerian and a Brazilian (namely Ramires, who backs Mikel's story) might have misheard the word "Mikel" as the word "monkey".

This may be the truth or it may be a happy linguistic coincidence which could still extricate Chelsea from an extremely awkward situation. Either way, if I was them, I would grasp it with both hands.

Or they can fight on. Stick to their guns and see how it turns out, but that seems like a foolish and perilous road to go down. Or even to gan doon.


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