For the first time in the long history of English soccer, a player is being prosecuted over words spoken on the field.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that John Terry, one of the country's best-known athletes, racially abused an opponent during an October match. Though the potential penalty — a $4,000 fine — is relatively small, the case throws soccer's decades-long struggle with racism onto a high-profile stage with deep ramifications for both the sport and Terry, who captains Chelsea and the English national team.
England has largely eradicated the abuse against black players that blighted the game here in the 1970s and '80s, but recent incidents have raised questions about how far the Premier League has to go. On Tuesday, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez received an eight-match ban and 40,000-pound ($62,000) fine from England's Football Association for racially abusing a Manchester United player during another match in October.
The sport's international governing body has a mixed record on the issue. FIFA has launched anti-racism campaigns but its president, Sepp Blatter, set off a wave of outrage last month by claiming that racist abuse does not exist on the soccer field and suggesting that any incidents could be settled by a handshake at the end of a match.
Prosecutors decided on Wednesday to charge Terry after studying video of him apparently hurling abuse at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand toward the end of the Oct. 23 match, which was broadcast around the world. The video appears to show him yelling two obscenities and the word "black."
Prosecutors declared that Terry had committed a "racially aggravated public order offense."
Terry denies wrongdoing, though he doesn't deny saying the words after a verbal clash with Ferdinand. He said the words were taken out of context because he was repeating an accusation he felt had wrongly been made against him.
"I have never aimed a racist remark at anyone and count people from all races and creeds among my closest friends," Terry said. "I will fight tooth and nail to prove my innocence."
Ferdinand has not commented directly on the case, and the Football Association has yet to issue a ruling, saying it will wait for the police investigation to be completed. Police and prosecutors became involved after a member of the public made a complaint against the defender, having seen footage of his comments.
"After careful consideration of all the evidence I am satisfied there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction and it is in the public interest to prosecute this case," Alison Saunders, the chief crown prosecutor for London, said in a statement.
Terry will have to appear at West London Magistrates' Court on Feb. 1 in a case that could threaten both his public image — worth millions in endorsements — and his international career.
If he is found guilty, it will be difficult for him to represent England at next summer's European Championship — especially since he often partners with Ferdinand's brother Rio in central defense. Terry already lost the England captaincy once, ahead of the 2010 World Cup, after being embroiled in a sex scandal, but he regained the armband this year.
Anti-racism campaigners are hailing prosecutors' announcement and the FA's punishment of Suarez as evidence that new weapons are being deployed against racism in soccer.
"It's a very important point in the history of campaigning against racism in football," said Herman Ouseley, chairman of the group Kick It Out. "People who are very cynical — and a lot of black footballers have been right up until I think yesterday — think it's a waste of time because the campaign hasn't stopped these things from happening. It goes on, it's quiet, it's subtle and nothing ever gets done.
"It's quite important that (players) now feel a bit more confident that, although it has taken a while, due process with decisive action could well make a change."
Suarez was found by an independent FA panel to have directed racist abuse at Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who is black. However, unlike the Terry case, Suarez's abuse was not caught on camera and there has been no complaint to the police to trigger a criminal investigation.
Liverpool players issued a statement Wednesday saying they were "shocked and angered" by Suarez's punishment, and that they support their Uruguayan teammate. "We know he is not racist," they said.
England is far from alone in European soccer in having to combat discrimination. Most high-profile cases have involved abusive chants by fans against players, but there have been several on-field incidents as well.
The French soccer league has opened an inquiry after claims from Morocco midfielder Kamel Chafni that an assistant referee racially insulted him during Auxerre's 1-0 defeat at Brest on Saturday.
Bulgaria's national federation was fined €40,000 (about $52,000) by UEFA after its fans directed racist abuse at England players during a Euro 2012 qualifying match in September.
But Luis Aragones held onto his job as Spain coach in 2005 after making racist remarks about French striker Thierry Henry, landing a fine of just €3,000 ($3,900).
"I think the problem has never gone away — it's just become more subtle and less obvious," said Ouseley, a member of the House of Lords. "I think there is an awareness that more has to be done."
Ouseley pointed out that Poland and Ukraine, the co-hosts of Euro 2012, have also had problems with racism in the past, and that next summer's tournament will be a good indicator of whether they and other countries are taking the matter seriously.
"We know from the reports we've had back (that) there are going to be problems there," Ouseley said. "They will make the right noises but will they do they right thing? Will they stop abuse?"
Rob Harris can be reached at www.twitter.com/RobHarrisUK