The fine art of celebrating goals in the beautiful game of football



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Law 12 of Fifa’s laws of the game deals with fouls and misconduct. Among the acts of misconduct which come under a category called unsporting behaviour is “excessive celebration.” For example, if a player covers his face with a mask or anything similar when celebrating a goal, Fifa says this is “an unnecessary or excessive display of celebration.”

I wish those people who cover their faces with hoodies in court when facing serious charges of misconduct could be ordered to remove them … but that’s not the story.

Excessive celebration. This is something especially we football fans have trouble keeping in check. I also honestly don’t know when the lines have been crossed although Fifa lists a few offences, like when a player removes his shirt or uses it to cover his head, or jumps over a perimeter fence.

The referee has wide latitude here. If, in his or her opinion, “a player makes gestures which are provocative, derisory or inflammatory when celebrating a goal,” that constitutes unsporting behaviour.

I think that is where it gets tricky. Players routinely provoke fans when celebrating their goals. The earliest case to come to my attention was the 1979 Africa Cup Winners Cup final between Gor Mahia and Canon Younde of Cameroon.

Canon’s Jean Manga Onguéné, the 1980 African Footballer of the Year, released a blockbuster from inside the centre circle which Gor Mahia’s goalkeeper, Dan Odhiambo, never saw coming.

The short sighted but otherwise brilliant goalkeeper only got busy only after his net was already shaking. Manga then turned to Gor Mahia fans.

He started clapping his hands while pointing to his ears. He wore a quizzical expression on his face which was exaggerated in its affected dismay. Manga was rubbing it in. His gesture unmistakably asked the fans why they had fallen silent. Why, pray, were they not clapping for him? What impudence, I thought.

The referee did nothing. I wonder if he would today. But the Africa Cup of Nations, the show stopper in the African sports calendar, will shortly be with us.

We are not just about to see great goals, but creative, funny and yes, provocative celebrations too. They are an integral part of the game. I love celebrations. I think African players are particularly talented in conjuring the most outrageous ones.


For decades, my favourite ones have come from Congolese players. Remember Muteba Kidiaba, the DR Congo goalkeeper to the 2013 Afcon finals? Each time his team scored a goal, he would “run” all over his penalty area – on his bottom! I wondered how he was able to do that. And for good effect, he sometimes did that while steering an imaginary car.

I think I have seen everything from happy Congolese players. You must have been thoroughly entertained seeing them purporting to make phone calls after scoring goals; they gyrate their hips while dialling a “phone” held high above their heads with right hand while the left is holding an imaginary handset to the ear. Only Lingala dancing maestros can make this up.

Football celebrations, of course, come in all forms. They have made it to advertising billboards, magazine covers, video games and anything from postage stamps to statues.

Thierry Henry’s statue outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium features his trademark celebration of sliding on his knees after his goals while an airborne Pele punching the air in ecstasy has been immortalised in Brazilian postage stamps.

Which is your most memorable celebration and by whom? Here is my list, those that top them all.

The mysterious one. As we all know, one of Europe’s most controversial players is Italy’s Mario Balotelli, he of Ghanaian parentage. You can love Balotelli or hate him but you can never ignore him.

It might be when he is telling off the parents who packed him off to an orphanage and now want a piece of him after the Balotelli family had done all the hard work of raising him, or he could be railing against the scourge of racism.

The media never seemed to get off Balotelli’s back. Anyhow, after scoring a goal against Manchester United in October 2011, Balotelli raised his shirt to reveal a vest with the words: “Why Always Me?”

Nobody could tell whether the words meant why it is only Baloteli who scored the goals or if he was referring to the constant hounding. He made it no easy for them by saying “I leave it for other people to figure out.”

The penalty diver. Germany’s ace forward, Jürgen Klinsmann, had an unsavoury reputation of diving into the danger area in search of penalties and free kicks.

He flipped the reputation on its head by celebrating his goals by diving on the turf with his arms outstretched, just like a swimmer does. The celebration gained a life of its own – whoever did it was said to “do a Klinsmann.”

The inimitable dancer. No player focused so much attention on himself as Cameroon’s Roger Milla during the 1990 World Cup. After each of his four goals, Milla raced to the corner flag and gyrated his hips with all of the globe’s cameras trained on him.

He revolutionised the way goal celebration is done and the game was never the same again. After Milla, it became a competition to see who was the most innovative, the most outrageous, the funniest of them all.

The pilot. Brazil’s striker during the 1982 World Cup, Careca – why do I love the fact that Brazilian players don’t need two names – always “flew” after scoring a goal.

He held his arms outstretched and turned this way and that in a course similar to that of a plane before making its last approach to the runaway. He gained imitators such as the Italian forward Vincenzo Montetella who earned himself the nickname “The Little Aeroplane.”

The love-struck daddies. These days it is common to see players kissing their ring fingers to indicate love for their wives – and husbands. Displaying love in the football field was first dramatised before a worldwide audience during the 1994 World Cup by Brazil’s Bebeto who, after scoring a goal against The Netherlands, raced to the touchline in front of his team’s bench.

There, he started rocking his arms from side to side, in the manner one rocks a baby. He was soon joined by team mates Romario and Mazinho. It was a sight to behold. Bebeto’s son, Mattheus, had been born two days earlier.

The gymnastics wizard. Nigeria’s Julius Aghahowa turned four perfectly executed somersaults during the 2002 World Cup after scoring against Sweden.
If I was doing the scoring, I would have given him a perfect 10. Wasn’t he lovely! Such athleticism. He embodied the Nigerian character – the astounding surprise, for better or for worse.

The believers. Mohammed Salah never forgets to touch his forehead to the turf in gratitude to his maker. All the brilliance is his – and so is his humility.

I am sure we are going to see some of this on his home turf. Brazil’s Ronaldo used to celebrate his goals with arms outstretched like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, while playing for Inter-Milan, he did a commercial for Pirelli that imitated Brazil’s most famous landmark.

There is celebration – and there is lack of it. By design. It is also part of the game. After slamming in a 25-yard pile driver that knocked out Uruguay from the World Cup last July, France’s Antoine Griezmann stood contemplating the damage he had done. He acknowledged the congratulations of his elated team mates but did not join them in the celebrations.

No fist pumping, no back somersaults, no gymnastics-style floor rotations – just a wide-eyed face full of contrition. Knowing beforehand the emotions that would affect him if what had just happened actually came to pass his colleagues, too, were appreciably restrained as they mobbed him. To Griezmann, his success constituted an act of sacrilege.

He explained later: “I didn’t celebrate that goal because when I started as a professional footballer I was supported by a Uruguayan, who showed me the good and the bad of football.

Out of respect, I thought it was not appropriate to celebrate that goal. I was also playing against friends, so out of respect I thought it was normal to not celebrate my goal. I am very happy, but also sad for my (Atletico) teammates.”

The midfielder, whose daughter had a Uruguayan godfather and had passed time the previous evening drinking native Uruguayan made tea, said he was enamoured of the small South American country. “It was my first time against Uruguay, so there was plenty of emotion,” he said. “I love Uruguayan culture and I love Uruguayans.”

Although professional footballers playing against their former clubs routinely avoid celebrating after scoring, Griezmann’s dramatisation of this phenomenon on the big stage of the World Cup caught the attention of many and became a talking point.

Not celebrating has a more practical purpose, of course. If your team his trailing 3-0 with two minutes left on the clock, and you score a goal, you do away with celebrations. Every second counts. At that point, the mission is definitely critical, but it is not hopeless. There is just one chance that in the remaining minute, you turn things around and force a draw or extra time.

Another circumstance when you don’t celebrate is when the game is irretrievably lost. If you are trailing 0-6 and you score in stoppage time, it is better to just leave it at that.

Nothing can be done to salvage the situation. In the circumstances, your main concern is that they don’t make it seven. So you just play for time and hope the referee puts you out of your misery soon.

I love Afcon, which gets better with each edition. This year’s will be the biggest ever. It will come with great celebrations coming in the wake of great goals. I won’t miss any of them.


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