If Nicolas Anelka is such a good friend of French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, then he will also have been well aware of the potential for his trademark ‘Quenelle’ gesture to cause deep offense.
After all, Dieudonne has multiple convictions for inciting anti-semitic hatred and is currently banned from performing his routine.
If, as he says, Anelka was only supporting the controversial comic by using the sign, well, there are many other ways he could have done that. For example, a T- shirt under his match kit. Now that would have provoked a public discussion but it would have stopped short of fuelling so much outrage.
For the FA this is not as simplistic as the John Terry and Luis Suarez cases and of course it is not purely a judgement on free speech. This is about whether ‘Le Quenelle’, as used by Anelka, is offensive and has racist connotations.
After taking advice, the FA have clearly come to the conclusion that it has, otherwise they would not have charged him. The veracity of that advice will be tested at Anelka’s disciplinary hearing. Whether Anelka meant his gesture to be anti-semitic or not is irrelevant. It will be an argument he uses in mitigation of course but this issue is very definitely about offence caused, not offence intended.
It has to be, otherwise all racists are given a license to indulge in their vile prejudices, needing only to say ‘I didn’t mean it really’ when challenged. Remember too Anelka is not actually accused of being anti-semitic himself, just as Suarez and Terry were not charged with being racists.
Anelka has asked the FA to reconsider and drop the charges against him. They are more likely to sack Roy Hodgson and appoint a woman manager to take the England football team to the World Cup. However, The FA’s cause has not been helped today by a leading member of France’s Jewish community – Roger Cukierman – who described the charge as harsh.
He also said the "quenelle" was not necessarily anti-semitic. Mr. Cukierman has since backtracked a little but not before Anelka pounced on his initial thoughts and publicised them as the first part of his defence.
The FA won’t struggle though to find religious, political or academic support for their prosecution, either here or across the Channel. Once charged, only one in a hundred walks free from the FA’s ‘independent’ High Court and I’m betting Anelka will not be that ‘one’.
I’m betting too he’ll end up with an eight-match ban, the same handed down to Luis Suarez when he repeatedly called Patrice Evra ‘"negrito". Suarez, remember, said he never meant it as a racist insult. Whether he did or didn’t was not the issue then and the matter of intent isn’t in Anelka’s case either.
If Anelka’s actions were genuinely innocent, simply in support of a friend, then not only has he been incredibly naïve but he has also shown a damaging lack of judgement. I suspect though, that is an overly generous interpretation of what has gone on here.
There’s no question that Anelka has offended and, if he did know what he was doing, that puts him in the same, deeply unpleasant and intolerant place as Dieudonne - who’s notoriety incidentally, now stretches way beyond French borders. As for the FA – they’ll probably be reflecting on the fact that whatever they say and whatever leadership they think they’re showing, the toxic issue of racism in football just won’t go away. Not only that, it comes back to haunt them in many disguises.