Football and politics are awkward bedfellows.
The game’s a powerful force and it’s done great work in fighting discrimination and bigotry. Used right, it’s a key political weapon. But used in the wrong way, it lands people like Nicolas Anelka in big trouble.
I have to admit I had no idea what the quenelle gesture was or what it stood for before Anelka brought it to the world’s attention. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Premier League is such a huge, global product then we might be none the wiser. Which is really besides the point. Whatever Anelka says about his intentions or his own views, the quenelle is offensive to a lot of people. You can tell that from the reaction to it. It’s considered by many to be anti-Semitic and, on the basis that it provokes such feeling and anger, Anelka was ill-advised in using it. I’m sure he regrets doing so.
If this leads to a lengthy ban from the Football Association, he can probably kiss goodbye to West Bromwich Albion at the end of this season. It might end his career in the Premier League. He’s 34 now and clubs are going to be less inclined to take a chance on him.
Anelka might resent the situation he’s in on the basis that he disputes the claims of anti-Semitism. He says the gesture was anti-establishment. But the establishment in France is partly Jewish so there’s a big grey area; a big grey area that players would be better off staying out of.
The thing about Anelka is that his salute was clearly pre-planned. He knew what he was going to do and he knew that the gesture would catch the eye. Otherwise, why do it? Why draw attention to yourself over something which, in his view, is no big deal?
For the most part, controversial goal celebrations are instinctive, spur-of-the-moment acts which players regret when the dust settles. I played with Robbie Fowler and he did some fantastic goal celebrations. Some of them caused all sorts of bother but to be fair to Robbie, his most famous (or infamous) was a reaction to the goading he was getting from the crowd.
People will tell you that it wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever, and these days Robbie would probably agree, but if a crowd can’t take a little back then they shouldn’t give abuse out. Footballers are only human. Anelka’s gesture was different – unprovoked and very deliberate. It calls into question his own judgement.
In my time no-one ever spoke to us about taking care with goal celebrations. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine clubs discussing with players these days because they like to cover all bases, and a gesture like Anelka’s (not to mention the fall-out) tends to sharpen the focus on acceptable behaviour. But in our day, you were credited with the common sense to know what might bring a team or football as a whole into disrepute.
Anelka’s gesture has done that without any question. I’ve got a feeling that Zoopla were probably going to withdraw as West Brom’s sponsor later this year anyway but if they didn’t approve of the quenelle or Anelka’s refusal to apologise for it then they were entitled to walk away. Controversy always has a cost and that’s not only true in the UK.
You’ll have read recently about Josip Simunic, the Croatian international who was banned for 10 games by FIFA for shouting a fascist slogan after Croatia’s play-off win against Iceland. The ban is so long and severe that he won’t be going to the World Cup. His international career is probably over.
The Football Association in Croatia called the ban “draconian” and Simunic said he was talking about his “love for my people and my homeland” rather than making a political point. I don’t know what his intentions were but what I do know is that fascist slogans are likely to cause upset to thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people. That doesn’t need much explaining no matter your personal views.
Freedom of speech is important and it’s not for me to tell other people what to say or how to think. Everyone has their own leanings and we fight against those we don’t like. But football’s a huge platform, a stage which can send messages to millions of people across the world. Is that the right place to be using something as contentious as the quenelle or to be shouting out fascist slogans? Of course it isn’t. Even Anelka must realise that now – and Simunic too.