LONDON — The English Premier League is such a hot commodity right now that just about every country wants a piece of it.
There are billionaires from Russia to the Gulf to the United States in the boardrooms. There are new television and marketing deals opening by the year. And just this weekend, NBC Sports outbid Fox to bring the games into double the number of U.S. homes beginning in 2013.
It is big, sometimes ruthless business. Chelsea, the current European champion, has opened a commercial office in Singapore and is as eager as Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal are in doing business in the growing American popularization of soccer.
So when the magnificent Chelsea versus United match Sunday in London spilled over into controversy, the 24/7 news machinery across the world became instant box office. Rumor and truth became entangled in the rush to publish and broadcast.
The score was 3-2, United’s first league victory on Chelsea’s territory in the decade since the Russian Roman Abramovic bought Chelsea and the American Malcolm Glazer purchased the Manchester team.
As night followed day, the fieriness of the contest centered on the controversies surrounding the referee. Mark Clattenburg — who refereed the Olympic Games final between Brazil and Mexico, and was expected to be among the 2014 World Cup match officials — made plenty of brave calls at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea’s home stadium.
He sent off two home team players, and he allowed Manchester United’s winning goal — which, the television cameras proved, should have been ruled offside.
But the storm brewing around the official was nothing compared to what he now stands accused of.
Chelsea took its arguments to the referee’s room after the game. The soccer authorities, the London Metropolitan Police and a human-rights lawyer are all looking into allegations that Clattenburg used “inappropriate language” toward two Chelsea players during the arguments on the field.
Those words are carefully weighed.
Chelsea’s chairman, Bruce Buck, is an esteemed American lawyer. Where his club speaks of inappropriate language, the media wade in with the claim, the assumption, that the words used were racist.
The players involved, though not officially named by the club, are John Obi Mikel, a Nigerian, and Juan Mata, a Spaniard.
By leak or by deduction, the media ran with all sorts of damning interpretations. One tabloid, The Daily Mirror, reported that there had been a barroom style bust-up around the referee’s room in which the words, “I’m gonna [expletive] break your legs” were heard.
In the same newspaper, a columnist pointed out that while Clattenburg had made generous decisions in Manchester United’s favor in the past, his full record of games involving the Reds amounts to 11 victories for United, four ties and five defeats.
“But don’t,” wrote the columnist Mike Walters, “let the facts spoil a good lynching.”
Too late for that kind of evenhandedness. This is Chelsea, whose captain, John Terry, is sitting out a four-game league ban after using racist language toward a black opponent a year ago.
In addition, the police are investigating how a match steward came to be hospitalized after Chelsea fans threw coins and other objects, including a torn plastic seat, toward the players after United’s final goal Sunday.
The London club, and English soccer in general, is a tinderbox after the Terry case, and amid other tensions that almost weekly imply racial content between players in a league whose money entices players from every conceivable country on earth.
Money is not the source of the outbursts, but it exacerbates it.
Clattenburg gets a retainer and £1,000, or about $1,600, for each game that he referees. That, at best, affords the former electrician, who is now 37, about £70,000 a year.
The players get that, and more, by the week.
Yet the ref is supposed to control the players, to rise above the foul-mouthed abuse that the Terry case so wretchedly confirmed players direct not only at one another, but often toward the officials.
That tawdry image is anathema to decent folks, to parents, ultimately to sponsors who pay to be associated with soccer.
We are not yet in a position to judge what Clattenburg said in the heat of confrontation with players. We did not hear, as his match assistants heard through their microphones to the man in the middle, exactly what was said.
It could easily come down to one man’s word against the others’, and to a question of interpretation.
Mikel’s English and Clattenburg’s might differ. The player comes from Nigeria, and ironically, his interpretation was the subject of an unholy row between Manchester United and Chelsea when he was a teenager.
Both claimed to have signed him in 2005 from the Norwegian club Lyn Oslo. FIFA ultimately ruled in Chelsea’s favor.
Clattenburg comes from northeastern England, where the local accent is sometimes difficult for Englishmen, let alone foreigners, to understand. Remember how Cheryl Cole, the singer (and former wife of Chelsea full back Ashley Cole), was said to have baffled American audiences, whom she had hoped to entertain as a celebrity television panelist?
For now, Clattenburg is removed from the list of Premier League referees while he fights his case. But there is nothing unusual in that: An assistant referee who erroneously flagged offside a perfectly timed goal for Liverpool on Sunday has also been kept on the sidelines.
It is normal to remove the match officials from the heat when accusations are hot and flying. And it is normal for the media to make a meal of the controversy.
For those not familiar, the FA (English soccer governing body) and the English legal system takes racism very seriously...its actually a crime to racially abuse someone in England as I as understand it...
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions...I agree fighting racism is a worthy cause and all, but at some point, all this negative PR and drama becomes counterproductive...
And yes, I am a Chelsea, so I may be a bit bias...