The buildup to the biggest Premier League game of the season so far has been centered around a racism controversy.The extent to which the fight against racism has become the all-encompassing talking point of English soccer needs no further evidence than the fact that it has overshadowed even the biggest Premier League game of the season so far.
Even at this early stage of the campaign, it is entirely plausible that Sunday's clash between Chelsea and Manchester United could have repercussions that may decide the title in May, and heading into the weekend, both public opinion and the EPL table agree that these are currently the two best teams in the country.
However, as the showdown of Stamford Bridge approaches, talk has centered not upon how Chelsea will cope without midfield engine Frank Lampard or who will start in attack for United, but on how recent events involving the racism controversy that has dominated the headlines will manifest on this particular afternoon.
These are strange times in English soccer, as a national obsession has become obsessed – with good reason perhaps – about a social ill and a decidedly ugly part of the beautiful game.
Central to the saga is Chelsea's John Terry, suspended for this game, whose alleged racial epithet at black opponent Anton Ferdinand last October led to a court case, action from the Football Association and heated discussion everywhere from local pubs to the Houses of Parliament.
To thicken this plot further: Rio Ferdinand, Anton's brother, is a veteran defender for United and an outspoken advocate against racism in soccer. Rio Ferdinand is not afraid to ruffle feathers, being part of a boycott last weekend whereby many black players around the country refused to wear warm-up T-shirts supporting an anti-racism campaign, as they felt not enough is being done to rid the sport of its evil effects.
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Rio Ferdinand was left out of the England squad for the European Championships last summer primarily because it was thought he could not exist in the same camp as Terry, who was deemed to be more important to the team's chances of success. Ferdinand has not been shy about making his feelings about Terry known, nor those about Ashley Cole, a black Chelsea player and former friend of the Ferdinands who claimed he did not hear Terry abuse Anton during last year's now infamous clash.
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One of the more ridiculous elements to the entire furor is that rarely a week seems to go by without fresh speculation as to who will (or won't) shake hands with whom. The pre-game handshake between rival teams was introduced years ago as a symbol of harmony and fair play but has evolved into little more than a parody.
Terry was snubbed by some members of Anton Ferdinand's Queens Park Rangers team when the sides met in September, though British reports this week excitedly impart that Rio Ferdinand and Cole are expected to press the flesh on Sunday.
Even the coaches have gotten involved, with irascible United manager Sir Alex Ferguson first publicly lambasting Rio Ferdinand for ditching the anti-racism T-shirt last week, then following up five days later by stating that his player had "done the right thing."
If it wasn't so serious, it would be farcical.
For his part, Chelsea chief Roberto di Matteo threw his weight behind a new nationwide plan to combat racism and force culprits to face instant termination of their contracts, conveniently airbrushing over the fact that multi-millionaire Terry received only a financial penalty from his employers, and nothing more serious.
A circus it has indeed become and it can only be hoped that all the attention showered upon the racism issue will lead to an effective and permanent solution, rather than just providing some juicy storylines and talking points.
Chelsea will remain as league leaders no matter what the result, going into the clash four points clear of United. But momentum can shift quickly in this league, and United will enjoy having turned around a Champions League deficit to defeat Portuguese side Braga midweek while Chelsea (and the other two English participants in the competition) suffered defeats that jeopardized their ongoing involvement.
The attacking combination of Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie is starting to reap rewards for United, though Ferguson will have some concerns over his midfield, with Japanese star Shinji Kagawa out injured and Darren Fletcher doubtful.
Neither team looks as assured defensively as in past years, which opens up the possibility of a high-scoring clash full of thrills and spills, the sort that might just be enough to shift English soccer's focus back onto, you know, soccer.
Martin Rogers is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports