The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog

John Terry, the England Football Captaincy: the Media and the Law

The England football captaincy, its removal and the resulting resignation of the team’s manager has been the subject of considerable media attention in recent weeks. In the first week of February 2012 the media monitoring site, Journalisted, reported that John Terry’s loss of the England captaincy was the biggest story of the week – ahead of Stephen Hester’s bonus and Fred Goodwin’s former knighthood. In the second week, it counted 462 articles about Fabio Capello and his resignation over the captaincy issue.

The England football captaincy is regarded as an important and significant office by the law as well as the media. Back in September 2011, a claim by Rio Ferdinand arising out of the publication of an article about his communications with a former girlfriend ([2011] EWHC 2454 (QB)) was defeated in part by the public interest arising as a result of Mr Ferdinand’s

“appointment as captain of England, first, on a temporary basis, in March 2008 and then in replacement of John Terry in February 2010” [87]

This was, of course, the result of an earlier privacy case involving John Terry (Terry v Persons Unknown [2010] EMLR 16) – which led to John Terry being removed from the post of England football captain. This was the great media law story of early 2010 – we had a Round Up of the coverage (and a sequel) at the time.

But back to the Ferdinand case. In reaching his conclusion on public interest Mr Justice Nicol was strongly influenced by the fact that

“[Mr Ferdinand] voluntarily assumed the role of England captain. It was a job that carried with it an expectation of high standards. In the views of many the captain was expected to maintain those standards off, as well as on, the pitch.” [89]

It is not entirely clear where these “expectations of high standards” come from – indeed, experience might well suggest an expectation to the opposite effect.

One place this “expectation” does not derive from is the Laws of Football. A curious and little discussed feature of all this is that the captain has, in fact, almost no formal role in a football team. The “captain” is mentioned only three times in the Laws of Football – twice in relation to penalty shoot outs and once in “Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct” which tells us that

The captain of a team has no special status or privileges under the Laws of the Game but he has a degree of responsibility for the behaviour of his team”.

“No special status or privileges” under the Laws of the Game. The words bear repeating. The lack of importance of the role is emphasised by the words “a degree of responsibility” – in other words, a vague and undefined “responsibility” – in truth none at all.

The formal role of the football captain on the field of play is a very minor one – contrary to some accounts he is not actually required to participate in the “coin toss” at the beginning of the game. The captain is wheeled out at press conferences. But there is no reason why both these roles have to be fulfilled by the same person for each match – and no reason why different players could not perform the roles from week to week. They could quite easily be fulfilled by each member of the team in rotation.

Whatever the England football captaincy is, it is certainly not a “public office” or a position which carries with it any public duties or responsibilities relevant to the proper functioning of a democratic society.

In short, the captain of the England team is whatever the manager – and the media – choose to make him. His status as a “role model” is a self-confirming media construct – the media say he’s a role model so he is. This then gives the media a handy stick to beat the person who has not lived up to the standards which they themselves have invented.

John Terry was accused of a criminal offence and it might be thought that he was innocent until proven guilty. The accusation seems unlikely to have affected his ability to deal with penalty shoot outs and if there was a problem about press conferences then doubtless someone else could have attended.

The identity and personal qualities of the holder of the “office” of England football captain are undoubtedly subjects in which the media – and some sections of the public – are interested in. It is, however, difficult to see how these matters have any wider significance and how media discussion of them can make any contribution to a debate of general interest. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to leave the England football captain to his proper job of playing football – his onfield performance can properly be criticised and dissected, the rest of his life could sensibly be left alone.


  1. soccer games online

    Well he is great player of all times. he has proved himself many times. He is the wall!

  2. Felix Labinjo

    “It is, however, difficult to see how these matters have any wider significance and how media discussion of them can make any contribution to a debate of general interest…” Difficult for whom exactly?

  3. Andrew Scott

    The expectations of high standards came largely from Ferdinand’s own pronouncements and those of others. This was no simple ‘role model’ case as people often suggest. To quote myself (!):

    ‘Ferdinand had generated a false image by repeatedly presenting himself as a reformed character who had forsworn his formerly wild ways. According to the judge, he had “embarked on a campaign since 2006 to project a more responsible and positive image than the reputation which he had had in the past”. This campaign included a particularly confessional interview in the News of the World in which Ferdinand had publicly committed himself to the role of faithful family man. This was followed up by an autobiography and numerous further newspaper interviews in which he had reiterated this message.’

    ‘Most importantly, by accepting the England captaincy when the manager, the FA chief executive, the sports minister and numerous commentators had insisted that the incumbent must maintain high standards both on and off the field, Ferdinand was making a strong, if implicit, assertion that his private conduct by that time met the prescribed norms. Given how his predecessor lost the role, it would have been pure cynicism for the public to believe anything else.’

    In that context, it was in the public interest for the newspaper to correct the false representations. Two further points though:
    (1) even accepting the foregoing, it is still open to debate whether the strength of that public interest was sufficient to outweigh the fairly significant impact on privacy. Mr Justice Nicol decided that it was on the facts. Fair enough. (2) Absolutely agree that it would be better for managers, sports ministers etc to keep stum on their off-the-pitch expectations of the person fulfilling the role, as they are clearly doing their players no favours.

  4. Simon Carne

    Not a very logical strand of argument from a blog that is normally so much more rigorous in its thinking.

    Inforrm acknowledges a difference between the narrow role of (any) football team captain, as determined by the rules of the game, and the much wider role of the England national team captain, as determined by the English Football Association (and perceived by the English public). But Inforrm then fails to accept that the wider role calls (or may call) for higher standards than the narrow one. It may well be that the lessons learned from the experience of the Terry and Ferdinand captaincies will cause the FA to downgrade the role in future by announcing that they expect nothing more from their captain than they would from any other team player. So far, all indications are to the contrary.

    A further distinction to be drawn – this time one which I think Inforrm fails to draw – is between the minimum standard required by law (on which measure Terry is, indeed, entitled to the presumption of innocence) and the rules by which professional footballers are required to conduct themselves. Notwithstanding Terry’s “not guilty” plea to the criminal charge, those who administer the English game are more than entitled to deem his conduct unsuitable. One only has to look at the decision in the Luis Suarez case: the Liverpool footballer was banned for eight games as a result of remarks which have not even warranted a police investigation, let alone a finding of criminal guilt.

  5. Felix Labinjo

    The thrust of INFORMM’S article appears to be that John Terry should be allowed to get on with his job of playing football because (a) his having been accused of a criminal offence does not seem to have affected his ability to deal with penalty shoot-outs (b) he never asked to be a role model in the first place and (c) in any event, football captaincy is not relevant to the proper functioning of a democratic society.

    If life were that simple!

    The Football Association has done the sport a massive favour, both nationally and internationally, in stripping John Terry of the England captaincy. The important factor that could not be ignored in all this was that criminal charges are pending against him. Yes, John Terry will always be innocent until proven guilty. However, as Prime Minister Cameron said, in an insightful display of statesmanship, “You can’t be captain with that question mark that needs to be answered….”

    The real world is not governed by ivory tower sentiments that are, at times, based on convenient assumptions. It is one in which the Luis Suárez/Patrick Evra incident provoked comments, within hours, in the New York Times and from the Uruguayan President Jose Mujica and Standard Chartered. The real world was probably what the Observer had in mind when it wrote in its editorial of 12 February 2012: “Sometimes football really is much more than just a game ……we must also recognise when the wider social good comes into play….”

  6. Vertaalbureau Engels Perfect

    What exactly did he say anyway? or do? I think its a pretty big fuss about nothing. He’ll probably get his captaincy back soon enough in my opinion.

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