Just when it seemed Chelsea’s reputation couldn’t sink any lower after a controversy-ridden 2012, along came “Ballboygate.”
The Football Association’s disciplinary body is set to open a fresh file on the English club on Thursday after winger Eden Hazard was sent off for kicking a 17-year-old ball boy while attempting to retrieve the ball toward the end of a League Cup semi-final match against Swansea.
The Belgium winger has apologised to the ball boy – and will not face criminal charges – but will be handed a minimum three-match ban for violent conduct, depriving Chelsea of one of its top players.
Worse for the European champions, however, is having face up to further accusations that its millionaire players are out of control, soon after the racism scandals involving John Terry, Ashley Cole and John Obi Mikel that blighted 2012.
“It is an extraordinary incident,” former referee Dermot Gallagher said.
“There’s no defence for that. Someone said it was borne out of frustration but you have to accept it. it was an extreme but you can’t have that at a football match.”
The incident sparked a flurry of activity on social networking sites and induced imaginative headlines in British newspapers, such as “Ed Case,” “Occupational Hazard” and “Boots of Hazard.” BBC radio has already been referring to it as “Ballboygate.”
Many ex-professionals have reacted with sympathy for Hazard, who was attempting to get the ball back into play as quickly as possible with Chelsea needing two late goals to force extra time in the second leg. The match finished 0-0, with Swansea progressing to the final 2-0 on aggregate.
“I’m not saying it’s the correct thing 2 do but when in the heat of the moment u just want the ball,” Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar wrote on Twitter.
It is another saga that Chelsea could do without, with controversy seemingly hovering over the club on a permanent basis.
“I do not know what you expect from me,” Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez said.
“Do you think we are not disappointed with the situation, that we do not regret what happened?
“Do you want to change things? We cannot.”
Chelsea probably wish they could change a lot of things over the past 12 months, save their unexpected Champions League title in May.
The club was at the centre of a major racism incident that gripped English football last year when Terry was banned for four matches for hurling a racial slur at an opponent during a league game. The case, which also involved Cole, took a year to be resolved.
In November, a complaint by Chelsea that one of its black players – Mikel – had been subjected to racist abuse by a referee during a game was dismissed by the FA. Mark Clattenburg, the referee in question, was removed from duty by the Premier League for four straight weekends and received unwanted media scrutiny.
At least Chelsea responded quickly to this latest incident, quickly putting up on its website an apology from Hazard. There are also reports the ball boy was welcomed into the changing room and treated well by Terry and Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s two most senior players.
“Both parties have come together and we’ve got a mutual bond,” Gallagher said.
“That is brilliant for the future, but it doesn’t escape the fact that the FA are duty bound to act.”