‘I carried the burden of not speaking out for so long, for nine years,” Anton Ferdinand says as he explains how haunted he has been. Ferdinand suffered terribly as the victim in the most controversial incident of alleged racial abuse in the history of English football. During a Premier League game between Queens Park Rangers and Chelsea in October 2011, John Terry said the words “fucking black cunt” in a spat with Ferdinand that ended up in court and the subject of a Football Association disciplinary hearing – which cost Terry the England captaincy.
Until now, however, the world has been oblivious to the pain Ferdinand endured. His decision to remain silent burned a hole inside him. “I have kicked myself and beat myself up for years for not speaking out,” he says quietly. This is Ferdinand’s first interview since participating in a searing and deeply moving BBC documentary – Football, Racism and Me – which will be screened a week on Monday.
His mood is composed but raw, for it is now time for him to talk about racism. The latest figures documenting racial hate in football have just been released by Kick It Out. In the 2019-20 season, there was a 53% increase in reported racial abuse in professional football. Until the pandemic brought an end to grassroots football in March there had been 11% more reported racial incidents among amateur players.
It’s a bleak Monday morning in Essex, and Ferdinand and I face each other at a safe social distance. Our masks have been removed and the hurt is etched into the face of the 35-year-old former footballer. Ferdinand also played in the Premier League for West Ham and Sunderland and 17 times for England Under-21s while his older brother, Rio, earned 81 senior caps and won the Premier League and Champions League with Manchester United. Yet Ferdinand points out that his seven-year-old son “asked: ‘Dad, why is it that when I Google your name there are pictures of you and John Terry?’”
That connection with Terry means Ferdinand has been associated with the case before everything else he has achieved. In a depressingly familiar way, the innocent victim of alleged racism had been made to feel guilty while receiving relentless abuse, death threats and bullets in the post.
Ferdinand chose to say nothing because he just wanted to play football and he trusted the authorities. But his career declined and as he says now: “I hated football for a long time. I loved playing it, but I hated what it stood for.” His sense of shame and pain intensified because his white mum and black dad wanted him to talk publicly about the Terry incident.
“Me and Rio were brought up to speak out,” Ferdinand says. “That’s why my mum and dad were so adamant and said: ‘Speak.’ Personally, it kills me I went against what I was brought up to do. But I was advised I couldn’t speak because we could harm the investigation. I wish I would have spoken but there was so much publicity and legalities. And, honestly, the pressure was too much.”
Rio and Anton grew up in Peckham and, in the mid-1980s, their mum endured horrendous racism. She and baby Anton were spat on when she pushed him in a pram. “My white mum told me I’d be treated differently because of the colour of my skin,” Ferdinand says. “She made me aware. She educated herself plus she went through so much – getting beat up, getting spat on because a black baby was in her pram and being with a black man. That was the era then. My mum was open about it. My dad was open too because when he first come to England from St Lucia people would drive past and shout stuff at him.”
In the documentary, Anton, Rio and their dad return to the Peckham estate. Anton remembers being harassed by the police as a kid and how his parents taught him to be wary. They said it was imperative, if asked by the police, to turn out his pockets rather than allow anyone to do it for him. Will he give the same advice to his children? “Things are a bit different now but I will still educate them because you never know. But for my kids’ generation there’s much more acceptance. It’s our job as parents to make sure it stays that way.”
As a young defender for West Ham, Ferdinand saw only a magnificent footballer when he looked up to John Terry. Even now, Ferdinand shows genuine affection when holding the signed shirt Terry gave to him after West Ham played Chelsea in 2005. Terry added a long and supportive message.
“I felt 10-foot tall,” Ferdinand says. “It was amazing someone of his stature wrote a message like that, saying I was a good player. I was excited.”
Ferdinand joined QPR on 1 September 2011, seven weeks before his life changed for ever. “I felt in a good place. I was back in London after four years at Sunderland, which I loved. But I loved big games and QPR hadn’t played Chelsea for 15 years. They were a fantastic team but, at home in front of our fans on a tight pitch, we knew we had a chance.
“I stood in the tunnel next to Didier Drogba, John Terry, whose credentials as a footballer are second to none, Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka, thinking I’m going to be the best player on the pitch. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up now because that’s what this little boy in Peckham dreamed about many moons ago. Nothing was going to get in my way.”
It was a wild derby. “They had two players sent off,” Ferdinand says. “We were winning and they were desperate to get back in the game. John came up for a long throw and I eased him out of the way. He fell theatrically to try and get a penalty and I turned round and said: ‘Get up, you’re bigger than me.’ He ran and barged me, so I barged him back. The game got stopped, words were exchanged and it was our free-kick. Paddy Kenny [QPR’s keeper] comes to take the free-kick. John jogs back into his position and then he said whatever he said while the camera panned on him. I didn’t hear anything at the time. I was back in the game. We went on to win and I was buzzing.”
Soon after the final whistle Terry asked to see Ferdinand. “We had a chat in the dressing room. He asked if I’m OK. I said: ‘Yeah, I’m fine’, oblivious to what had gone on. I embraced him and then went upstairs. My family were in a box and I walked in with a spring in my step. I was so happy. It was very quiet and my mum said: ‘Anton, are you all right?’ My wife went: ‘Are you OK?’ I said: ‘Yeah, we just beat Chelsea!’ My mum said: ‘Did John Terry racially abuse you, Anton?’ I said: ‘No.’ My wife went: ‘You’d better look at this.’ She handed me the phone. I see [Terry clearly saying the offensive words], give it back and go to walk downstairs. The only person who could have stopped me that day was my mum.”
Ferdinand says his “blood was boiling” but his mum “shouted at me and I turned around and she said: ‘I know what you want to do but now is not the time.’”
The online footage of Terry had already gone viral. Ferdinand shakes his head. “I was hurt and angry. People that haven’t had racial language shouted at them online or by another person won’t understand that and that’s why I made the documentary – to show the ripple effects. People at board level ain’t ever going to feel that. What they can do is open their minds and become understanding by listening to people who have felt it, and working closely with us.”
A member of the public, rather than Ferdinand, laid a charge against Terry, who faced a courtroom trial in July 2012. Terry’s defence rested on his claim that he thought Ferdinand had accused him of saying the words “fucking black cunt” and that he had merely repeated them while denying he had said them first. After four days the magistrate found Ferdinand to be a “believable witness” and that “Mr Terry’s explanation is, certainly under the cold light of forensic examination, unlikely”. Yet the television cameras had not captured everything Terry had said and so the court decided there was sufficient doubt and ruled that he was not guilty of a racially aggravated public order offence.
In the documentary Ferdinand draws a stark contrast between the FA’s seemingly friendly questioning of Terry and his own meeting with the governing body – which felt like an interrogation. But the FA still found Terry guilty of “using abusive and/or insulting words … which included a reference to colour and/or race”. In September 2012, Terry was banned for four games and fined £220,000. He also lost the England captaincy which made the national coach, Fabio Capello, resign in fury.
On social media Ferdinand was swamped yet again by waves of savage racism. He was also hurt that he received no support from anti-racism bodies such as Kick It Out, which criticised his silence. Troy Townsend, the admirable head of development at Kick It Out, tells Ferdinand how sorry he is while admitting his organisation is funded by the FA and every time he speaks out he believes he could lose his job.
“I wouldn’t say I was shocked,” Ferdinand suggests when he considers Kick It Out’s latest set of racism statistics. “It’s always there, and it’s probably a sign that people are braver now and speaking out because they feel more supported.”
How did Ferdinand feel when, last week, Greg Clarke resigned as chairman of the FA after using racially offensive language? “I was disappointed because the good work that they’re doing with the diversity code got spoilt. It was a kick in the teeth and shows how far we are from making things better. But the board and people right across the FA should mirror the England team – which is diverse. Throughout every age group England’s teams are a mixture of different races and that should be mirrored.”
There are many powerful moments in Ferdinand’s documentary – including his decision to meet Renée Hector, who played for Spurs and went public with her allegation that she was racially abused by an opponent during a match against Sheffield United in January 2019. Sophie Jones denied the allegations but was found guilty by the FA.
“It was important to include her because football is not just a male sport,” Ferdinand says of Hector, who has since moved to Watford. “Her story mirrors mine. It was imperative we compared stories because the way we dealt with it was different. I was proud of her speaking out when I didn’t.”
Ferdinand nods when I say it must have made him feel vulnerable to contrast his agonised silence with Hector’s public reaction. “It was very tough. But this documentary was made for the next generation. It was about them seeing a contrast and the different ways it played out. It’s part of educating the next generation and for them to know that, if they suffer from racial abuse, I want to be someone that they can speak to. The key thing for them is to keep control of your story rather than allowing others to narrate it for you.”
Hector shares a message sent to her of a mocked-up pregnancy scan which shows the foetus of a baby gorilla. Ferdinand tells the 25-year-old how proud he is of her defiance of such racism. After he confesses to feeling embarrassed that he had not also raised his voice, Hector reminds Ferdinand that his previous silence is immaterial. All that matters is that he is speaking up now.
“It was a pivotal moment,” Ferdinand says. “Wow! Somebody who actually knows how I felt is proud of me. I didn’t accept them words straightaway because it had been on me for so long. Then I felt lighter because I realised life is about timing and I’m speaking out at the right time for me.”
Terry did not respond to a message from Ferdinand in late summer. Towards the end of the documentary, as Ferdinand tries again to arrange a meeting between them, the television production team is told that Terry does not want to reopen a case already settled in court and that he has “moved on with his life”.
Ferdinand is neither angry nor bitter. “I respect his decision. I just wanted him to understand that it’s bigger than me and him. I don’t know whether he thought I wanted him to apologise – but that’s never been my aim. My aim is bigger than me and him. Let’s use our stories to make a difference.”
It has been hard for Ferdinand to move on with his own life because he worried that his mum, whom he lost to cancer, had fallen ill as a direct result of his troubles. “There were ripple effects. Her house was targeted. Eggs and bricks were thrown. There were death threats. I know it wasn’t my fault that she fell ill, but consciously [the worry] was always there. Watching the documentary through my family’s eyes I understood that my mum couldn’t help when normally she would have done. She was watching her son go through something she went through many years ago. I was able to understand why subconsciously I blamed myself, why at times I couldn’t sleep and I was frightened of myself.”
Ferdinand is remarkably calm, and even hopeful that society and football will soon change for the better. “I always have hope because we’re fighting for equality. I hope I see it in my lifetime. If this documentary plays a small part in that change then I’ll be very happy.”
On the last day of filming Ferdinand found the courage to talk to young black and white players at the West Ham academy. He spoke about his turmoil and then said that they should not feel alone if they are subjected to any form of racial abuse. Ferdinand and others who been have through the same experience will support them. The footballers responded with applause.
Ferdinand looks at me, his face creasing with emotion at the memory, and then he smiles. “The last scene at West Ham ain’t in the documentary, but James Ross, the film-maker, asked me one last question. I finished answering and I got up. I walked the length of the pitch. I was looking up at the sky and tears were streaming down my face. I know my mum would have been proud seeing me own my voice again. I kept saying: ‘Mum, I’ve done it. I finished it. I’ve spoken.’”
Anton Ferdinand: Football, Racism and Me, Monday 30November, 9pm, BBC One