Top 10 Most Controversial Player Celebrations in Soccer

Celebrations and gestures by players are part of every sport to some degree. The joy and emotion of a player is usually obvious after they score a goal, make a sack, hit a three-pointer or strike out a batter. It is natural in competitive sports that athletes let their emotions take over, from time to time. As fans, we scream, get angry, laugh, throw things and cry because of what we see our teams and players doing during a game. Imagine what those players are experiencing and you’ll understand why they sometimes react the way they do when they intercept a pass, sink a hole-in-one or make an amazing save.

Of course, there are players who let emotion or bad judgment take charge in these instances. Fighting with officials and other players, taunting the opposition or making rude gestures to the crowd are all occurrences observed from time to time. Various leagues have instituted rules to reduce on-field problems like these. For instance, the NFL outlawed the ‘cut-throat’ gesture and excessive touchdown celebrations in order to reduce tensions between teams. The NHL tried, unsuccessfully, to outlaw fighting and FIFA moved to ban all acts or gestures by players which had a political message or meaning.

Despite these well intentioned moves, players continue to let bad judgment and emotion get the better of them from time to time. The world of soccer is no different. For instance, recently West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka was involved in a controversy caused by one such celebration. The French striker attracted criticism when he performed a gesture called a ‘quenelle.’ Anelka insists the ‘quenelle’ is an anti-establishment gesture and was done in support of his comedian friend, and ‘quenelle’ creator, comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala. Critics of the gesture see it as reminiscent of the Nazi salute and the FA, English football’s governing body, agreed fining Anelka $132,000 and banning him for 5 matches.

Anelka’s case raises the question of other footballers who have celebrated or made gestures deemed inappropriate during a match. There are many, but these are the 10 most controversial player celebrations and gestures witnessed in professional soccer.     

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10 The Running Man

From Arsenal’s Thierry Henry to Manchester United’s Gary Neville, players running the length of the field to taunt opposition fans can cause controversy. In September 2009, EPL side Manchester City hosted Arsenal at the now Etihad Stadium. The game was significant as it saw former Gunner, Emmanuel Adebayor, face off against his old club for the first time since leaving. Arsenal supporters were disappointed with Adebayor’s departure and by his perceived lack of respect for the club. Having booed and taunted the Togolese striker for most the match, Arsenal supporters were sent into a rage when Adebayor scored in the 80th minute and ran the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of them. Objects were thrown at the player and a steward was injured in the process. Adebayor was given a yellow card and charged with improper conduct by the FA. 

9 The Dive

Jürgen Klinsmann’s move to the Premier League in 1994 raised a lot of eyebrows. Many in England disliked the German striker because he had helped eliminate England from the 1990 World Cup and he had a reputation for diving. Playing for Tottenham Hotspur, Klinsmann quickly won over fans in his very first game. After scoring against Sheffield Wednesday, he ran towards the sideline and dove head-first to the ground, acknowledging the reputation he brought with him.

Fast forward almost 20 years. David Moyes, then in charge of Everton, claimed that ‘divers’ like Liverpool’s Luis Suarez were ruining the Premier League. When Liverpool and Everton met in October 2012, an already heated Merseyside derby was cranked up a notch further when Suarez scored in the 14th minute. The Reds’ striker ran towards the touchline where Moyes was seated and threw himself to the ground. Ironically, Suarez was not booked for simulation but Everton team captain Phil Neville was.  

8 The Handcuffs

Players often use goal celebrations to make reference to friends, family or events. The rocking arms or thumb-sucking to rejoice in a new baby, or the kissing of the ring-finger to pay tribute to a spouse are common celebrations. Celebrations which are political or agenda-driven are frowned upon by the governing authorities. The ‘handcuff’ celebration is rare but has been used on more than one occasion. Often to show support for a friend or family member on trial or in jail, this celebration is also used to signify some sort of injustice in the player’s life. It is therefore no surprise that players like Everton’s Tim Cahill, Chelsea’s Nicolas Anelka and Ipswich’s David Norris all celebrated goals in this manner and that their respective teams and/or FA stepped in with fines.

7 The Drinking Game

If you Google ‘The Dentist’s Chair," up comes an article on drinking games with a picture of soccer players spraying water into a teammate’s mouth right above it. ‘The Dentist’s Chair" is a drinking game and the soccer players in the question are the England International team. Before Euro 1996, the media had snapped pictures of some of the England squad in Hong Kong partying. One image had teammates pouring alcohol down the throat of forward Teddy Sheringham. The pictures created an uproar in England. The players responded. In a Euro 96 match against Scotland, England midfielder Paul Gascoigne produced a moment of brilliance to beat a defender and volley the ball past the Scottish keeper. In a mocking tribute to the media storm, Gascoigne proceeded to drop to the ground while teammates poured water into his mouth.

6 The Drug User

Unsurprisingly, any celebration which appears to suggest drug use is deemed unacceptable by footballs governing bodies. Step forward Robbie Fowler. In April 1999, Liverpool squared off against Merseyside rivals Everton. Before the match, there were reports and accusations by some Everton supporters that Liverpool’s Fowler had a drug abuse problem. The Reds’ striker responded after scoring a goal by pretending to snort up the penalty area line as if it were a line of cocaine. The FA fined Fowler $100,000 and banned him for 4 matches.

Fowler’s discipline was not a one-off event. In the Russian League, Spartak Moscow striker Emmanuel Emenike was shown a straight red following his goal celebration against Zenit St. Petersburg. What did he do wrong? Emenike celebration involved slapping the inside of his arm, as if preparing for an imaginary heroine injection. The official deemed it ‘obscene’ and sent him off.

5 The Fascist Salute

This is a celebration guaranteed to get negative attention, bans and fines. The fascist salute not only crosses the ‘no-political celebration’ line, but is also deemed by almost everyone as totally inappropriate. Perhaps the most well known advocate of this celebration was Paolo Di Canio. During his time at Serie A side Lazio, Di Canio was pictured giving the supporters the salute numerous times. Recently, Greek player Giorgos Katidis was handed a life ban from the Greek National team, banned for the season by AEK Athens and fine $82,000 for giving the salute after scoring. Katidis claims he was dedicating the game winning goal to a friend in the stands. Officials saw it differently.  

4 The Nutcracker

Some goal celebrations require interpretation or explanation to be understood. Some goal celebrations, however, just have no rational explanation. In November 2001, Sevilla and Vallodolid faced off in La Liga. Sevilla won the game 4-0 which included a goal by Jose Antonio Reyes. Reyes’ celebration was, at first, normal, with teammates climbing all over the striker. Then midfielder Francisco Gallardo came along. Rather than give Reyes a pat on the back or a hug, Gallardo bent down and took a bite of the Spaniard’s genitals. Although Reyes says he only felt a ‘pinch,’ Gallardo was fined and suspended by the Spanish Football Federation who deemed his actions as violating “sporting dignity and decorum.”     

3 The Hitler

Yes, we have already had a section related to this type of gesture. Mark Bosnich, however, took it to a whole new level when his team Aston Villa played Tottenham Hotspur in October 1996. In a career marked with cocaine use, cross dressing sex tapes and cancelled contracts, the Australian-born keeper made many poor choices. One of those took place at White Hart Lane. Bosnich, after considerable taunting from the Spurs’ supporters, simulated a mustache with his finger and gave the crowd a Nazi salute. As Tottenham have a significant Jewish fanbase, the action did not go over well with the crowd. Surprisingly, the punishment was very lenient in today’s terms. The FA labeled Bosnich’s actions as “an act of stupidity,” yet only censured the keeper and fined him $1,500. Given Anelka’s ‘quenelle’ punishment, one wonders what Bosnich would have received in today’s game.   

2 The Execution

In recent years, Mexico has developed a reputation for drug and gun violence. In light of this, one would expect soccer players in Mexico to show some restraint when it comes to incorporating anything related to these issues into their celebrations. Marco Fabian de la Mora and Alberto Medina, both players for Chivas Guadalajara, clearly did not pick up on this point. In their 5-2 win over Estudiantes UAG, the two celebrated one of the goals with De la Mora pretending to execute Medina with a gunshot to the head. Both players were fined $3,700. De la Mora stated regret for the celebration and donated $76,000 to an orphanage in a border town known for drug related violence.    

1 The Flute

What could be worse than Nazi salutes, drug and execution simulations and the biting of a teammate’s privates? How about an act that insults fans, aggravates religious tensions, and results in death threats by the IRA?

Known as the Old Firm, the match between Glasgow Rangers and Celtic is one of the fiercest derbies you will find in football. The two Scottish teams are historically divided along political-religious lines with Republican/Catholics traditionally supporting Celtic and Loyalist/Protestants following Rangers. In January 1998, Ranger’s midfielder Paul Gascoigne tested these divisions by simulating playing a mock flute, a symbol of Loyalists and the Orange Order, during a warm-up. The midfielder, nicknamed ‘Gazza’ had done the gesture in 1995, but never at an Old Firm match. Unsurprisingly, Celtic supporters and Catholics did not take well to it. In addition to being fined $33,000 by his own club, Gazza also learned from this mistake. Specifically, he learned from local police how to check mail and under the car for bombs left by the IRA.

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