When West Bromwich Albion’s French striker, Nicolas Anelka, scored the first of his two goals against West Ham during Sunday’s English Premier League game, it’s fair to say no one paid much attention to his celebration. It did look to be some sort of odd pose, a symbolic gesture even, but so what? When footballers score today, they often seem to mark it with some sort of slightly cryptic gesture or, more grating still, a painfully choreographed skit usually to mark the birth of a teammate’s baby. In fact, by contemporary standards, Anelka’s decision to mark his goal against the East End’s finest by placing one hand to his shoulder, while extending his other arm to the floor, palm outstretched, was spectacularly unremarkable.
But that was at the time. Within a few hours, Anelka’s seconds-long goal celebration had become an Anglo-French scandal. It turns out that what Anelka was actually doing, according to those schooled in the semiotics of contemporary anti-Semitism, was an inverse Nazi salute, combined with a quasi ‘up yours’. While no one who actually saw it at the time recognised it as such, so byzantine was its symbolism, Anelka’s ingenious gesture was actually part of an attempt to incite Jew hate, invoke Holocaust denial and inspire an anti-Semitic lynching. Or something like that.
French politicians were quick to enlighten football fans about Anelka’s true intent. France’s sports minister, Valérie Fourneyron, accused Anelka of a ‘disgusting anti-Semitic’ gesture. Her predecessor, Chantal Jouanno, backed-up Fourneyron and declared the gesture ‘clearly anti-Semitic and known to be such’.
Ever in search of a whiff of race hate, UK’s official anti-racist quangocracy, supported by the huffing and puffing sanctimony of the media, quickly joined the fray. Anti-racist group Kick It Out said it supported an investigation, before Piara Powar, the executive director of something called Football Against Racism in Europe, suggested that Anelka was aiding and abetting the rise of the far right: ‘The rise of the far right is one of the most dangerous phenomena facing Europe right now… [and] they are active and alive in football’. A commentator in the Guardian was equally outraged: ‘It needs to be made clear to footballers that using their profile to promote messages that may incite hatred and racism is unacceptable.’ Over at the Telegraph, Henry Winter was concerned that unless the authorities clamped down on this sort of thing, Anelka’s goal celebration could ‘be adopted by xenophobes in England’. Which is surely preferable to Union Jack facepaint.
Given the volume of the by-the-numbers outrage, one could be forgiven for thinking Anelka had arranged a pogrom with West Ham’s top boys, not marked a goal with a gesture no one would have noticed had politicians, campaigners and columnists not banged on about it for days. Moreover, despite the repeated assertion that the gesture is anti-Semitic, it’s not actually clear what this combination of a salute and an up-yours really means. This much we know: the gesture itself originates with French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, known simply as Dieudonné; and it is known as the ‘quenelle’ because Dieudonné, who ran for the European Parliament in 2009 under the banner of the Anti-Zionist Movement, once said that he wanted to put a ‘quenelle’, which is both a rugby-ball-shaped blob of meat paste and slang for penis, up the arse of Zionists. Boom tish.