Anelka Gesture Highlights Bigger Problem

By | January 27, 2014

We will have to wait until the end of February to find out the fate of West Brom’s Nicolas Anelka.

The Frenchman stands accused of making an anti-Semitic gesture known as the quenelle, after scoring against West Ham at Upton Park, earlier this month. If found guilty, Anelka will face a five match ban minimum, as stipulated by the FA’s new guidelines

Anelka has denied the anti-semitism charges, and claims that the goal celebration was a tribute to French comedian, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who popularized the gesture that has been described as an inverted Nazi salute.

The problem with Anelka’s defense is that Dieudonne has been prosecuted by the French government for spreading race hate, which among other things includes insulting the memory of Holocaust victims. Both men have claimed that the gesture has no religious connections, and is merely an anti-establishment symbol. Nevertheless, Dieudonne’s track record suggests otherwise, and the fact that Anelka has not offered an apology to those who find the gesture offensive suggests that the player is oblivious to the seriousness of the matter, regardless of his intentions.

The episode has once again highlighted ethnic and racial abuse in the game; a recurring problem that has tarnished the sport, but that has for the most part found its origins in the stands.

There have been far less cases involving players and/or managers, but the Premier League alone has had to deal with a few high profile cases, namely those involving John Terry and Luis Suarez, two players who many argue should have received much harsher punishments for their delinquencies. Terry was handed a four match ban in 2012 for comments he made to Queens Park Rangers player, Anton Ferdinand, while Luis Suarez was suspended for eight games in 2011 for racially abusing Patrice Evra of Manchester United.

The FA’s handling of the John Terry case came under a tremendous amount of scrutiny, particularly since a regular red card suspension results in a three game suspension – one less than what Terry was given. Even Joey Barton(then on loan at Marseille)  chimed in at the time, berating the FA for its leniency in the case, and then questioning the twelve game suspension he received for clashes with Carlos Tevez, Sergio Aguero, and Vincent Kompany.

While Barton is hardly the voice of reason in just about any matter, his reaction to John Terry’s punishment was certainly a valid one. After all, one could argue that prejudiced vitriol can be far more damaging than the physical altercations that can develop more ‘naturally’ in a contact sport (although there is a tendency to ignore psychological trauma because it isn’t as apparent). Even if someone were not to agree on that point, he or she would be hard pressed to make the case that the two are not at least equally egregious.

Unfortunately, though, the few cases that we have to go by seem to suggest that we punish more harshly when there is physical abuse. Luis Suarez is the perfect example, since he received a longer suspension (ten games) for biting Branislav Ivanovic, than he did two years earlier for his incident with Evra.

That could change with Anelka. His gesture has been met with indignation, both in England and abroad, placing a tremendous amount of pressure on the FA to get its decision right. Add that to the fact that the FA proves the vast majority of the cases it takes on, and it is very likely that Anelka will be facing a substantial suspension – a potential career ender for a footballer who is already on his last legs.

Anelka has made it clear that he will fight the charges, and if his decision to snub Lazio’s approach turns out to be legitimate, it suggests that he believes the truth to be on his side. However, Anelka will have to go at it alone, with West Brom revealing that the Frenchman will have to dig deeply into his own pockets to pay for his defense. That’s not necessarily a surprise given Zoopla’s decision not to renew its three million pound a year shirt sponsorship deal with the club. What is surprising is the club’s rumored attempt to find a way to nullify his one-year contract, which is set to expire this summer.

If West Brom does manage to find a way to terminate Anelka’s contract, it will set a very important precedent for such cases. Ultimately, it is up to the governing bodies of domestic leagues to mete out the appropriate punishments for racial, ethnic, or religious offenses; however, if they fail to do so, clubs can take the lead by disassociating themselves from players whose behavior soils their legacies.

Needless to say, football will only rid itself of this plague if and when it decides to punish it perpetrators ruthlessly.