From the heights of captaining England and Chelsea, John Terry's football career faces being forever marred by being found guilty of racial abuse.
Almost a year after hurling a slur at Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, Terry was handed a four-match ban and a record £220 000 fine by a Football Association disciplinary panel after a four-day hearing.
The 31-year-old defender, who has been named four times in Uefa's team of the year, remains aggrieved the Football Association (FA) pursued a case against him despite being cleared in a criminal trial in July of a racially-aggravated public order offense.
"Mr Terry is disappointed that the FA Regulatory Commission has reached a different conclusion to the clear not guilty verdict of a court of law," Terry's management team said in a statement. "He has asked for the detailed written reasons of the decision and will consider them carefully before deciding whether to lodge an appeal."
The sanctions are on hold until the outcome of any potential appeal.
Terry had announced his international retirement on Sunday – in protest at the FA's pursuit of the case.
The move ended a controversial nine-year career representing England during which he became the first player to be stripped of the captaincy twice. The second time led to Fabio Capello quitting as England coach in February, angry at the FA hierarchy's decision to fire Terry before either of his cases had been heard.
The full reasons for the FA's verdict are yet to be released, but the panel said it proved the case that Terry used "abusive and/or insulting words and/or behaviour ... which included a reference to colour and/or race."
'A regular red card'
But the length of the ban has already been questioned, since Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was suspended for eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra during another Premier League game last October.
Former England striker Gary Lineker pointed out on Twitter that Terry's four-match ban is "just one game more than a regular red card".
There was also criticism from Joey Barton, who was banned for 12 matches for violent conduct on the last day of the season while playing for Queens Park Rangers.
"What an absolute farce," tweeted Barton, who is on loan at French club Marseille. "Twelve games for violent conduct and only four for that [racism].
"FA should be embarrassed ... by the FA's perverse reckoning, I'd of got less of a ban for racially abusing the Man City players than tickling them as I did. In what circumstance can that be right?"
In the court case, Terry did not deny using an offensive term during the match at QPR in a confrontation that quickly spread on YouTube after the match.
But Terry maintained all he did was sarcastically use the phrase "[expletive] black [expletive]" to counter the obscenity he claims Ferdinand was accusing him of using.
Ferdinand did admit to goading Terry about his alleged extramarital affair with the former girlfriend of ex-England teammate Wayne Bridge, which led to Terry losing the national team captaincy for the first time in 2010 – before being reinstated a year later.
The magistrate described Terry's defence as being "under the cold light of forensic examination, unlikely," but found there was not enough evidence to prove he was lying.
But the hearing conducted by English football's governing body had a lower burden of proof, with the context of the insult less significant. The FA said in its Suarez verdict last year that his guilt did not depend on whether he "intended his words to be abusive or insulting," with the use of a racial slur during a match enough to convict the Uruguay international.
Chelsea, which bans fans for life if they are found guilty of racial abuse, is standing by Terry for now.
Since making his Chelsea debut in 1998, Terry has won every major club title, including the Premier League three times and the Champions League last season, although he was suspended for the final.
"Chelsea Football Club notes and respects today's decision by the Football Association regarding John Terry," the club said. "We also recognize that John has the right to appeal that decision. It is therefore inappropriate for us to comment further on the matter at this time."
The Terry and Suarez cases that blighted last season prompted British lawmakers to investigate the apparent resurgence in racism cases.
The culture, media and sport committee praised the improvement in atmosphere at matches compared to the 1970s and '80s, but said the football authorities need to do more to combat racism in the British game.
"It would be good if there was some sort of recognition on John Terry's part that what he did was wrong," said committee member Damian Collins. "This is something football should learn from." – Sapa-AP