Anton Ferdinand documentary shines light on football’s ongoing struggle with racism

Miguel Delaney
·6-min read
John Terry, left, and Anton Ferdinand competing for the ball (Getty Images)
John Terry, left, and Anton Ferdinand competing for the ball (Getty Images)

There are many gripping moments in Anton Ferdinand: Football, Racism and Me, and much of the attention will doubtless go on the former centre-half deliberating over whether to send an email to John Terry after their infamous clash in 2011, but a more meaningful moment comes through a message he sends without hesitation.

Ferdinand is looking at news stories of cases similar to his, and comes across that of Leeds United’s Kiko Casilla racially abusing Jonathan Leko. He is perturbed that, nine years on, the Charlton Athletic player was made to feel just as Ferdinand did then, as if he “wasn’t the victim”. He immediately decides to send Leko a message. Then there is an emotional conversation with Watford’s Renee Hector, in which Ferdinand praises her bravery in speaking out about her own incident, only for her to say he should seek solace in the fact he’s speaking out now.

The theme of these stories, and the documentary, is clear. It is not just about the power of racist language. It is about how we discuss it, how we deal with it, and – most of all – how someone at the centre of such a story copes.

Ferdinand is clearly agonising over his refusal to speak out about the series of episodes that spilled out from the events of 23 October 2011, and a derby between Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea.

Terry was later found not guilty of using racist language in that match in court, with Justice Riddle stating there was a lack of evidence to prove beyond doubt that Terry used the words “f*****g black c**t” as an insult. The Chelsea player was charged by the Football Association in its own disciplinary case, which had a lower burden of proof.

Shown listening to a four-minute excerpt of Terry’s interview with the FA, Ferdinand is often incredulous, stating “that doesn’t even make sense” and “what type of shit is that?”

The former QPR player acknowledges that he feels anger again at such moments, and doesn’t want to because he should be "past that", but it’s impossible for him not to allow a range of emotions to surface. It makes the documentary very moving, and all the more important.

There is clearly shame when Ferdinand reads out the statement he issued at the time, saying he would not reveal his feelings.

“This doesn't show mental strength,” he says of himself. “I should have shut everyone down, and done what I was brought up to do – which is to speak.”

There is clear regret, guilt and tears as he wonders whether his refusal to speak played any part in his late mother’s cancer.

This is what the episode has done to him, and there is even the impression it may have affected his football career. Former manager Neil Warnock talks of Ferdinand being “in a daze”.

“That’s one of the questions people don’t ask,” Ferdinand at one point says. “Are you OK?”

Someone else’s words are of course missing. Terry’s absence looms over the programme, but actually makes it all the more potent.

The player’s representatives told the BBC that they didn’t want to re-open discussion on a case that had been settled in court, and the documentary notes that Terry never got back to Ferdinand’s email.

If the temptation here is to re-legislate the case from a remove of nine years, though, Ferdinand himself has an important comment about that.

“It’s not a situation where I want to bash him for it,” he says. “I’m over that. I’m past it. It’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than my feelings. This isn’t an Anton versus John Terry situation, and it hasn’t for me and my family. It’s always been about the bigger picture, about what went wrong throughout it, and how not to deal with a situation if it comes up again. My concern is the next generation, from here in and out. It is about change.”

That is one of the key points of this documentary. It is not just Ferdinand’s powerful examination of his own feelings, but an examination of where the game is on one of its primary issues going into 2021.

While there are elements of progress – Kick It Out’s Troy Townsend shows a commendably different attitude from that which Ferdinand felt from the body in 2011 – the impression is of so much space for improvement.

It feels like football has only begun to grasp the depth of the issue, and the scale. That's before you even get to some of the direct criticism of the Football Association within the programme, as well as recent stories like Greg Clarke's resignation because of the very language he used. There's discussion around the Leko case, as well as the examples cited of incidents of abuse from supporters.

Throughout the documentary, racially abusive tweets that Ferdinand received regularly crop up on screen. You can see the date on them, and many are much more recent than 2011 or 2012.

The unfortunate reality is that this documentary will likely prompt more abuse, and another back and forth over what Terry said. Some of it, in an element that has only served to further toxify the discussion, will be governed by club bias. It would be to completely miss the point.

Ferdinand even references this when he criticises some of the accusations of “hypocrisy” Terry got for wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt earlier this year.

“I saw John Terry take a knee, fair play to him. He got backlash. Don’t just take a knee. Speak about it.”

That’s what Ferdinand is trying to do through this documentary, as well as his work as a mentor for young players. He talks to so many figures, from family members to psychotherapists.

“Because I’ve never spoken about it, I don’t think I really understand what I went through,” Ferdinand concludes.

It feels like the whole game is going through the same process. It has only started to properly speak about race relations, so doesn’t have anywhere near a proper comprehension of the issue. The fact Leko endured the same feelings as Ferdinand did in 2011 shows this. That is its true point, not the controversy surrounding Terry. It makes a documentary like this crucial.

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