All articles are written by YJDP Student Sports Writers and edited by mentors from The Washington Post prior to publishing.
European soccer, specifically domestic leagues within countries like the United Kingdom, Italy and others, are known for their worldliness. For example, English Premier League side West Bromwich Albion has players from the likes of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Sweden, and even the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, despite the cultural variety throughout the sport, anti-Semitism remains a key problem within soccer, and this has been on display within recent weeks.
On December 28th, 2013, journeyman striker Nicolas Anelka scored his first goal of the game for West Brom. Although this brought joy to the teams’ supporters, his celebration, which was a ‘quenelle’ salute, was highly controversial. Anelka, a black French player who converted to Islam in 2004, initially defended his questionable gesture by saying he was attempting to defend and support his personal friend and famous French comedian Dieudonne M'Bala M'Bala, who has used the gesture as an anti-societal and anti-system protest, as Anelka noted.
However, the gesture is also seen as highly anti-Semitic. This is due to the fact that M’bala M’bala has been previously fined and banned from performing due to being a perpetrator of anti-Semitism, according to the French government. Less than a month after the incident, the comedian spoke with Sky Sports and stated that not only does Anelka have his full support, but that the salute had nothing to do with racism whatsoever.
Roger Cukierman (head of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions and vice-president of the World Jewish Congress) weighed in on the issue by stating that the salute is only anti-Semitic when performed at places with Jewish values, although he later followed up that comment with a reaffirmation that it is in fact a clear reverse Nazi salute. However, Cukierman’s position was still used by Anelka to defend his actions via the French footballer’s Facebook page, where Anelka posted a video of Cukierman explaining how he felt about the controversial salute. Although many see it as anti-Semitic, Anelka, Dieudonne, and possibly even Cukierman are on the other side of the fence.
As controversial as the celebration was, the response to it was even more so. The first thing that angered Jews and religious freedom supporting peoples alike was the delayed response to the action by the English Football Association. Much like the National Football League’s Roger Goodell they have the responsibility of suspending or fining players as they see fit for actions they partake in whilst playing.
Finally, on January 21st, 2014, the FA charged Anelka with making a gesture that had been deemed "abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper," according to the FA’s statement and their rulebook. Soon after that, Anelka denied the charge and requested a personal hearing as many expected he would, once again citing that he was not a racist and that the quenelle was simply expressing his anti-establishment/anti-system sentiments. He will attend a personal hearing, and if found guilty will be banned a minimum of five games and might also be fined separately. In recent years, other English Premier League players, namely John Terry and Luis Suarez, have been found guilty of such actions and were suspended accordingly.
As if the delayed response by the club and the FA was not enough, West Brom has been further shrouded in controversy via their sponsor, Zoopla, an English company that tracks housing prices. Zoopla is co-owned by Alex Chesterman, who is Jewish. After not only Anelka’s celebration but also the fact that he played for West Brom in the following week’s fixture, Chesterman announced that Zoopla and West Brom would not be seeking a re-negotiation of their sponsorship contract at the end of the season. Initially, the two sides would have likely sought a one-year extension for the company to appear on the club’s jerseys. However, after the announcement from Zoopla, West Brom will have to search for a new jersey sponsor this offseason. They currently sit 15th in the 20-team league.
Ian Berner, an 11th grader at Yorktown High School, is both a Reform Jew as well as a devout English Premier League follower. Berner believes Anelka “[didn’t] have any bad intentions, but he still needs to be more careful with stuff like that.” Although many players pride themselves on their signature celebrations, Berner believes players who perform such celebrations are completely responsible for their own actions. “If [Anelka] plans on doing a certain celebration it’s his responsibility to be sure it can’t be regarded as an offensive gesture...that can mess with his team’s reputation,” noted Berner.
Anelka is certainly no stranger to controversy. After locker room squabbles between himself and former French national team coach Raymond Domenech during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Anelka was banned for 18 games from the national team by the French FA, only to retire promptly after. In both 2000 and 2012, Anelka became wrapped up in confrontations with coaches at two of his various former club teams.
Furthermore, Anelka is not the only French athlete to be labeled anti-Semitic by using the gesture. According to BBC Sport, fellow soccer players Samir Nasri and Mamadou Sahko, both who are French and now play for English clubs like Anelka, have been in hot water for using the quenelle in pictures they had posted on Twitter. Veteran San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who was pictured using the controversial gesture roughly three years ago, fell to the same criticism. All later apologized for their actions and claimed that they were unaware of the anti-Semitic connections with the celebration at the time they were found using it.
The FA and West Brom’s delay in response to the incident appears even worse than it is after the decision in mid-December by the international governing body of soccer, FIFA, to suspend Croatian defender Josip Simunic for ten matches of international play. Why? Simunic incited a fascist chant with fans after Croatia punched their ticket to the 2014 World Cup after defeating Iceland. Although ten matches is a decently large amount, the ban is much more significant because Simunic now cannot represent Croatia in the World Cup because the ten-match ban falls within Croatia’s World Cup games.
Much like the equally controversial quenelle, this sparked a debate about the thin line between dated, revolutionary chants or gestures and their anti-Semitic values, as many defended Simunic for simply boasting his Croatian nationalism regardless of the possible anti-Semitism it might represent. And just as Anelka has had controversy follow him throughout his career, Croatian fans have been reprimanded before for scathing racist chants.
What happens next is certainly unpredictable. Most pundits believe Anelka will be charged and suspended, and whether or not West Brom decide to keep him on their roster will largely depend on how lengthy the suspension is. Teams are currently approaching their 24th game of the 38-game season. If Anelka is suspended for a significant period of time, he might be let go by the club to sign other places, namely for teams not in England so he does not have to serve his suspension. Regardless, it is certain Anelka has sparked a grand debate with one simple gesture on a Saturday afternoon that has polarized British soccer itself.