It’s lunchtime in East London and Nicolas Anelka is running through the last line of defenders, everyone arrayed messily like the quivering dots on an LED football display. The 34 year-old striker shrugs off his marker and clips the ball, like a suited executive sinking a putt with the faintest of taps, into the far corner of the goal.
In celebration the Frenchman pins one arm to his side, lifts the other across his chest and presses his hand to his shoulder. He looks like a medical mannequin in a sling, or a man singing the national anthem with his shoulder standing in for his heart. Those in the stands think nothing of it but across the Channel, French fans have just sat up, perhaps pressed the rewind button, raised an eyebrow or two. Some are on the phone to the press.
Anelka has just performed a gesture known as the “quenelle”. Invented by controversial French “comedian” Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, it is widely seen as having anti-Semitic or racist connotations. It has been performed in front of Holocaust memorials, synagogues and the Toulouse primary school where two Jewish children were killed in 2012. Most English media outlets describe it with the same three-word phrase: it resembles, they say, a “reverse Nazi salute”.
Anelka has denied the anti-Semitism charge, claiming it was “just a special dedication” to his friend Dieudonne, who was watching the game. The problem is that Dieudonne has been convicted of hate speech eight times, and in a 2013 show, said of Franco-Jewish radio presenter Patrick Cohen: “When I hear him speak, I think to myself: ‘Gas chambers…too bad they no longer exist.’”
Anelka has since been banned for five matches and fined £80,000 by the English Football Association (FA). Two weeks later, the FA handed out a comparable ban, this time to the manager of Newcastle United, Alan Pardew, who headbutted a player as he rushed into the technical area for a throw-in.
While Anelka will miss five matches, Pardew will be gone for seven, having been charged last Wednesday with violent conduct. But the violence tag is a bit of a misnomer. Pardew’s headbutt was ugly, pig-brained and reeking of foul machismo, but it was less a Zidane-style charge and more a brief nod in the general direction of someone else’s ear. It seems this is worse than repeating a gesture that has been performed outside schools where Jewish children have been gunned down.
The FA have a track record with this unique brand of self-contradiction. In October 2011, the Liverpool striker Luis Suarez was given an eight-game ban for racial abuse. Suarez (who has in the past deliberately handled the ball, bitten opponents, and deliberately bitten the hands of opponents), had called another player “negrito”. Weeks later, the then England captain, John Terry, was similarly charged, this time for calling compatriot Anton Ferdinand a “fucking black cunt”. His punishment? A four-match ban. Compare this to Suarez’s eight, Pardew’s seven and the five the FA gave a 14-year old who, as a joke, told the referee his name was “Santa Claus”.
On Sunday, Anelka was officially released by his club for “gross misconduct” and his career looks all but extinguished. After thirteen years in the Premier League, it seems he will never play in England again. Terry, meanwhile, has remained captain of Chelsea FC every year since his conviction. He retains this position of power over his racially-diverse teammates week in, week out, wholly pardoned it seems, by virtue of being white, English, and good at placing his foot conveniently between other players and the goal. Unlike the bite-happy Suarez, the FA look comically toothless. Why is a manager’s idiocy valued at seven matches, an anti-Semitic gesture at five and racist abuse from the captain of England only four? The numbers simply do not add up.