Nicolas Anelka has received a five-match ban and £80,000 fine for performing the controversial quenelle gesture after scoring for West Bromwich Albion last month. Although this may sound like a clear verdict, it is more complex than it initially sounds. A Football Association hearing upheld the disciplinary charges brought against him.
As mentioned previously on this website, the quenelle is a gesture associated with controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala. Whilst some argue that it is anti-Semitic, Anelka has maintained that it was merely anti-system.
However, Anelka was found guilty of performing a gesture that was “abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper”. Furthermore, his offence constituted an “aggravated breach” due to “a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief”.
However, there is a degree of ambiguity in the summary of the decision of the Independent Regulatory Commission. The commission “did not find that Nicolas Anelka is an anti-Semite or that he intended to express or promote anti-Semitism by his use of the quenelle”. This statement may disappoint anti-racist groups and be used by Dieudonné’s followers to maintain that the quenelle is not anti-Semitic.
There were several high-profile critics of Anelka’s gesture and his justification for it. Jewish writer, comedian and football fan David Baddiel was a prime example. Baddiel told BBC’s Newsnight in January that Anelka’s explanation of his celebration was like saying: “No, it’s not anti-Semitic, it’s just a gesture in support of my friend the enormous anti-Semite.”
Establishing the meaning of the gesture in the context in which it was performed appears to have been one of the challenges that faced the Football Association. Indeed, the summary of the decision of the Independent Regulatory Commission mentions that they “heard from two expert witnesses”.
This has parallels with the way that two experts on South American linguistics and culture helped a Football Association panel to assess a 2011 disciplinary case involving Liverpool’s Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez. Suarez was accused of using racially offensive language towards Manchester United’s Patrice Evra in October 2011, but claimed that his words were “conciliatory” due to how they are used in Uruguay. This was an argument that the experts rejected due to Suarez having directed them at Evra after a heated exchange on the field.
Initially, the cases involving Suarez and Anelka appear similar. Both concern incidents which require knowledge of diversity in non-UK contexts in order to be fully understood. The charge of which Suarez was ultimately found guilty was also the same as the one that Anelka faced.
However, the Suarez case primarily focused on language that he directed at an opponent on the field. In contrast, the Anelka controversy concerned a gesture that he claimed to have made towards someone in another country.
Most crucially, Anelka received the minimum five-game suspension that is associated with such an offence. Suarez was given an eight-match ban. However, Anelka’s £80,000 fine was double that of Suarez.
Given the information currently in the public domain, the Football Association appears not to have sent out a clear message in the admittedly complex case involving Anelka. On one hand, he has been found guilty of an “aggravated breach” of rules about gestures that are “abusive and/or indecent and/or insulting and/or improper” by virtue of their being “a reference to ethnic origin and/or race and/or religion or belief”. On the other hand, the summary of the commission’s findings stated that they felt Anelka did not “express or promote Anti-Semitism by his use of the quenelle”.
As Anelka has seven days to lodge an appeal, the controversy surrounding his goal celebration may well continue. In wider terms, the wording of the Football Association’s summary of the Independent Regulatory Commission’s verdict does little to help those who did not fully comprehend the initial incident. Furthermore, it will almost certainly not appease many of those who criticised the organisation for the time it took the issue the disciplinary charges.