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Kalou’s Goal Celebration and the Problem of Politics in Football

The top football leagues’ fear of the political has now reached the point at which players have to deny supporting freedom of speech. Salomon Kalou, who scored both goals for Chelsea in their 2-0 win over Middlesbrough on Wednesday, celebrated both by crossing his arms at the wrist and running toward the crowd. This was interpreted by many as a “handcuffs” gesture meant to show support for the Ivorian activist Antoine Assalé Tiémoko, who was recently released after spending a year in an Ivory Coast prison for writing an opinion piece.

Tiémoko, who heads an NGO that works against social injustice and unemployment, published the piece on December 14, 2007 in the newspaper Le Nouveau Réveil. Titled “Justice, criminals and corruption,” it told the story of a fictional African country called the Mastodon Coast, and used elements of parable, anagrams, and innuendo to accuse the Ivorian minister of justice, the state prosecutor, and a number of judges of corruption.

This wasn’t a reckless accusation. Not long before Tiémoko’s piece was published, the UN mission in Ivory Coast said in a report that judicial corruption had become so widespread in the country that “people have come to believe, even though fortunately it’s not always the case, that it is impossible to get a favourable decision without handing over money.” An entire class of illicit intermediaries, known as the “margouillat,” has arisen to pass money between citizens, lawyers, and judges.

Regardless, Tiémoko was arrested on December 28, charged with “libeling the prosecutor’s office” and “contempt of court,” and sentenced to a year in prison on January 4. The conviction provoked outrage from human rights groups as well as from writers’ organizations and free-speech advocates such as PEN and Reporters Without Borders.

The FA, has different standards, however, and has launched an investigation of Salomon Kalou (as well as his fellow Ivorian Didier Drogba, who joined him in the crossed-arms celebration) to determine whether the gesture was indeed a sign of support for Tiémoko. If they find that it was—if Kalou and Drogba were caught openly endorsing free speech during a football game—the two players will face fines and possible suspensions.

Is this not a little draconian in its own right? I understand that a football league is a private entity that can establish its own rules about political expression and require its players to follow them. I understand why a league would want to keep politics out of its games: it wants fans to be entertained, not made to squirm through fascist salutes and inflammatory theatrics. I could even partially sympathize with the RFEF when they fined Fredi Kanouté for revealing an utterly non-violent Palestine t-shirt during a match earlier this month. Messages like that can be explosive even if they aren’t meant to be, and football lives on a thin enough line as it is.

But supporting a man who was imprisoned for writing an article? From here, that just seems uncontroversially admirable. I certainly can’t imagine it would have provoked mass outrage in Stamford Bridge from Chelsea fans who knew what was happening. The whole investigation has a bizarro quality, actually: Kalou and Drogba are frantically denying doing something morally impressive; football, which wants to sell itself as a force for good in the world (just read Sepp Blatter’s interviews!), is reflexively protecting the Ivorian justice minister over a wrongfully imprisoned writer. And Chelsea, which would love to be seen as a positive influence in the community, is desperately hoping that the FA will believe the two players were flashing the symbol of Konvict Muzik, Akon’s record label.

Worst of all, the press, which is constantly blaring on about wanting players to be more virtuous, and which you might expect to have some sense of the stakes involved in, you know, throwing people in jail for writing in newspapers, has been either silent on the issue or has openly criticized the players. The Daily Mail actually bundled the story in with a special feature on “The most SHOCKING goal celebrations” (capitalization theirs, believe me).

But was this really, in any way, shocking? I can’t help but think that some of the discomfiture is actually residual outrage from the hysteria over David Norris’s handcuffs celebration in November: the simple act of signifying “handcuffs” is now so intrinsically offensive that the context ceases to matter. Which makes no sense, of course.

The more important question, I guess, is whether we think the “no politics” rule ought to be applied so universally and indiscriminately that there’s no room to assess the values actually reflected in a gesture. But how can football claim not to distinguish among political values, when it’s constantly inundating us with anti-racism and anti-violence messages? If John Terry had lifted up his shirt after scoring a goal to reveal an anti-apartheid t-shirt, would he be punished or celebrated?

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Kalou’s Goal Celebration and the Problem of Politics in Football

by Brian Phillips · January 30, 2009

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