After four days of foul-mouthed evidence that provided insight into soccer's crude culture, Chelsea captain John Terry was cleared Friday of racially abusing an opponent.
While the veteran England defender left a London court vindicated, the image of the national game was tarnished by the on-field exchanges replayed during the trial.
Amid all the uncertainties about the confrontation between Terry and his accuser, Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, there was no disputing they had been trading vulgar taunts following a disputed penalty decision.
"It has not been the best of weeks for football," said Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. "It has been an unedifying process and the game has been damaged as a result of the dirty linen being washed in public... it is not just the line between what is banter and what is illegal, so much of what we have heard this week needs to be cut out."
In the Premier League match in October that was broadcast to a worldwide audience, Ferdinand had been goading Terry over an alleged extramarital with the former girlfriend of ex-England teammate Wayne Bridge.
Prosecutors claimed that Terry snapped in response to the insults and bellowed "(expletive) black (expletive) at Ferdinand. But the magistrate who ruled on the case backed Terry's defense that he only used the offensive term sarcastically to counter the obscenity he claims Ferdinand was accusing him of using.
Chief magistrate Howard Riddle was persuaded that Terry could have misheard "Bridge" as "black," prompting his belief that a suggestion of racism was being wrongly claimed in the west London derby at Loftus Road.
"It is highly unlikely that Mr. Ferdinand accused Mr. Terry on the pitch of calling him a black (expletive)," Riddle said in his judgment, parts of which were read in court. "However I accept that it is possible that Mr. Terry believed at the time, and believes now, that such an accusation was made.
"The prosecution evidence as to what was said by Mr. Ferdinand at this point is not strong. Mr. (Ashley) Cole (the Chelsea defender) gives corroborating — although far from compelling corroborating — evidence on this point. It is therefore possible that what he said was not intended as an insult, but rather as a challenge to what he believed had been said to him."
Riddle called Terry a "credible witness" and questioned the key video evidence.
"The lip readers do not provide evidence that categorically contradicts his account," he said of the YouTube video. "What may at first sight have seemed clear to the non-expert, is less clear now."
While clearing Terry of the racially aggravated public order charge, in his near 5,000-word verdict Riddle did not dispute the credibility of Ferdinand, who only heard Terry utter the key phrase on the internet after the game, which QPR won 1-0.
"It is inherently unlikely that (Ferdinand) should firstly accuse John Terry of calling him a black (expletive), then shortly after the match completely deny that he had made such a comment, and then maintain that false account throughout the police investigation and throughout this trial," Riddle said. "There is no history of animosity between the two men. The supposed motivation is slight."
There were cheers in Court One at Westminster Magistrates' Court from members of Terry's family after the verdict.
The case had led to Terry being stripped of the England captaincy in February by the Football Association ahead of the European Championship, prompting the resignation of coach Fabio Capello who disagreed with the decision.
The FA could still bring charges against Terry, with its disciplinary process — that was halted amid the police probe — carrying a lesser burden of proof than a criminal case.
"The FA notes the decision in the John Terry case and will now seek to conclude its own enquiries," the governing body said in a statement.
Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was banned by the FA last season for racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra in a case that never went to court.
"Needing a lower burden of proof (than court) puts the FA in a difficult position now," Taylor said. "Some people may say we should draw a line under it ... but at the same time we must not sweep it under the carpet and say everything is fine when it's not."
European champion Chelsea has never wavered in its support for Terry.
"We are pleased that John can now put his mind to football and go back to training and do what he's done for many years," Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck said outside the court.
Terry had faced a maximum fine of $3,900 if found guilty in a case that was heard without a jury.
"He did not racially abuse Mr. Ferdinand and the court has accepted this," Terry's legal team said in a statement.
Ferdinand had been reluctant to pursue a criminal case, which was prompted by an off-duty police officer making the complaint. Prosecutors defended the decision to pursue the high-profile case.
"The very serious allegation at the heart of this case was one of racial abuse," Alison Saunders, Chief Crown Prosecutor for London, said. "It was our view that this was not 'banter' on the football pitch and that the allegation should be judged by a court.
"The Chief Magistrate agreed that Mr. Terry had a case to answer, but having heard all of the evidence he acquitted Mr. Terry."
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris