Ref giving red card to player

Football Struggling to Get a Hand on Its Players Making Offensive Gestures

Offense is taken, not given, so the old saying goes, so deciding what constitutes something as offensive or not is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. But that doesn’t exactly help football’s rule-makers, who must decide which gestures – which can be displayed by players when celebrating a goal or, shall we say, giving a bit back to the fans – are fair game and which are unsavoury to the point of punishment.

UEFA found themselves in a bit of bother at EURO 2024 when they had to decide upon sanctions for two players who displayed gestures just a couple of days apart. In their view, the gesture of one of England’s key players was pretty much okay, whereas the one performed by one of Turkey’s stars needed more stringent action.

Balls to the Floor

Jude Bellingham
Jude Bellingham (Vyacheslav Evdokimov /

The ‘crotch grab’ can be many things – it can be a sports star showing their ‘cajones’ at a moment of high pressure, or it could be construed as highly offensive if performed aggressively in the direction of an unwilling recipient.

Jude Bellingham, on the other hand, claimed that his crotch grab at the EUROs was merely a bit of fun between he and his friends watching on from the stands as England took on Slovakia – ultimately, that explanation got him off the hook. The midfielder was fined €30,000 – possibly a day or two’s wages – and handed a suspended one-game ban for the salute to his mates… it just so happened that his chums were sat directly behind the Slovakia dugout, who took offence to Bellingham’s display.

UEFA decided that he had violated the ‘basic rules of decent conduct’, but stopped short of banning the 21-year-old outright. Instead, his one-match ban will be suspended ‘for a probationary period of one year, starting from the date of the present decision.’

Wolves at Bay

Turkish defender, Merih Demira,l was not so fortunate when the verdict of his hearing was revealed. He made a gesture during Turkey’s 2-1 win over Austria in the last 16, shaping his hands to form an ‘wolf’. In this context, the wolf symbolises the far-right political movement Grey Wolves, notorious in Turkey for their extremist, ultra-nationalist views. The symbol is already banned in France and Austria – given that the Austrians were the opponents on the day in question, it’s perhaps no surprise that UEFA took such a dim view on Demiral’s celebration.

The charges brought against the 26-year-old was ‘failing to comply with general principles of conduct, for violating the basic rules of decent conduct, for using sports events for manifestations of a non-sporting nature and for bringing the sport of football into disrepute.’ Demiral was banned immediately for two games. It was a decision met with derision in Turkey, with the country’s minister for sport Osman Askin Bak even wading in on Twitter.

The double standard that Bak is thought to be referring to is the more lenient penalty given to Bellingham, but he could also be referencing the cases of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri in 2018. The two Swiss stars scored in Switzerland’s 2-1 win over Serbia at the World Cup, celebrating with a ‘double eagle’ gesture – the emblem on the flag of Albania, their country of birth, and a nation with whom Serbia have not always enjoyed cordial relations. They both escaped punishment.

A Cupped Ear and Middle Fingers

Nicolas Anelka
Nicolas Anelka (Amarhgil /

There is no single directive on gestures – offensive or otherwise – in IFAB’s rulebook, so each football authority has the freedom to decide sanctions independently. The Premier League, when faced with a far-right salute from Nicolas Anelka back in 2014, took a much tougher position than UEFA and FIFA had previously.

Anelka, in his time with West Brom, scored against West Ham and celebrated with a ‘quenelle’ hand gesture. This is considered by many to be an inverted version of a Nazi salute in France, and the striker was condemned by Jewish groups both in his homeland and in England. Property company, Zoopla, founded by Jewish entrepreneur, Alex Chesterman, immediately ended their sponsorship agreement with the Baggies.

The Premier League fined Anelka £80,000 – around £107,000 today after inflation – and banned him for five games. Sometimes, the gestures take on a more school playground like aesthetic – but even if they aren’t safe from punishment.

A number of players, including Dele Alli and WSL star, Kerstin Casparij, have been sanctioned for showing the middle finger to opposition supporters. Both were fined and handed a one-game ban – despite, in the case of Alli, claiming that the gesture was made in a jokey way at teammate, Kyle Walker, while on England duty against Slovakia.

Even one of football’s great entertainers is not immune to punishment. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that the one-match ban given to Cristiano Ronaldo back in February was harsh. Playing for Saudi outfit Al-Nassr, Ronaldo cupped his ear to the fans of Al-Shabab, who had been heckling the Portuguese throughout the game by chanting the name of his ‘great frenemy’, Lionel Messi.

Incredibly, given that he’s the global ambassador for the league, authorities came down hard on Ronaldo and handed him a one-game ban for what was a rather innocent and mischievous gesture. Happily, such a tough standard is maintained when the player really deserves a significant punishment. Giorgios Katidis performed a Nazi salute while playing for AEK Athens in 2013; he was banned for life from representing the Greece national team and for three months from the Greek Super League.