Playing football is all about freedom of expression on the pitch. Scoring a goal is the single best thing that any individual can do on the pitch and celebrations are an expression of character that help give football and its players an identity. However, as new rules and regulations continue to dictate what players can and cannot do, it begs the question - are football's governing bodies doing too much and actually censoring the world's favourite sport?
The latest rule change, which will come into effect on 1st June 2014, will ban players from displaying messages on t-shirts underneath their kit, usually revealed after a goal is scored. The new law was proposed by the FA and passed as a global decree by the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the governing body which manages the rules of the sport. Set up in time for this summer's World Cup, players will no longer be allowed to display slogans or images which contain any personal, religious or political message.
It is right that football's governing bodies are concerned about offensive and inappropriate material in an increasingly globalised society. In reality, however, only a minority of players who display messages ever tread inappropriate ground and in such cases, the individuals would be punished anyway. Most players who choose to display a message under their shirt do so for personal reasons and it showcases the diverse characters that make up the global game.
Many footballers are deeply religious and such players often feel they owe their career and life to their faith. In the past, Kaka and Steven Pienaar, to name but a few, have demonstrated their Christian faith with messages, while Adel Taarabt has previously displayed a t-shirt praising Allah.
Others have had more varied reasons for displaying slogans, but the vast majority remain perfectly innocent. Few Premier League fans will forget Mario Balotelli's 'Why Always Me?' t-shirt, poking fun at the seemingly never ending bizarre string of events in his personal life. In 2012, Robin van Persie lifted his shirt after scoring a goal to reveal a message wishing his 91-year-old grandfather a happy birthday and Didier Drogba once wore a vest reading "Thank You Madiba" to mark and honour the passing of Nelson Mandela. Such acts are examples of personal expression that do not intend or impart any harm and yet these will soon be banned.
In 2010, Andres Iniesta was pointlessly shown a yellow card for removing his shirt to display a message. After he had scored the extra time goal that won the 2010 World Cup, the biggest moment of any footballer's career, the player wanted to show the world the message written on his vest, which read 'Dani Jarque - Siempre con Nosotros' (always with us). It was a tribute to Daniel Jarque, a former junior international colleague and friend who had died from a heart attack a few months earlier. To be cautioned at any time for such a petty rule is unjustified, but on as jubilant an occasion as the World Cup final, while also displaying a heartfelt memorial, it verges on the ridiculous.
Whilst visible messages are set to be banned shortly, removing a shirt completely is an act already outlawed by football's governing bodies. Players taking off their shirt in celebration was frowned upon for many years, but has been deemed worthy of formal punishment since 2003. Those who do remove their shirt usually do so following the ecstasy of scoring a goal of great importance or significance and the understandable jubilation takes over. The subsequent yellow card only serves to punish what football is really all about.
Removing the shirt was originally made a punishable misdemeanour as some pointed out that bare torsos were seen as offensive in some cultures. One individual who thought he had found a loophole to bypass the rules was Vancouver Whitecaps player Eric Hassli. During an MLS game in 2011, Hassli scored a penalty and in celebration proceeded to remove his shirt and throw it to the fans. He was wearing a second full Whitecaps jersey underneath and so never really technically removed his shirt, however, the referee saw it differently and Hassli was promptly sent off after receiving what was his second yellow card of the game.
Players also receive a mandatory yellow card for celebrating goals with their fans. In modern football, highly paid professionals are regularly criticised for being too far removed from the supporters that make them what they are. When an individual scores a goal they could be forgiven for wanting to celebrate with those who follow them every week and help pay their wages. But according to the official rulebook it is classed as deliberately leaving the field of play without the referee's permission and is mercilessly deemed worthy of punishment.
The rules also state that players must be cautioned if they cover their head or face with a mask or similar item. It means that the quirky days of former Fulham striker Facundo Sava celebrating a goal by pulling out a black mask from his sock or Jonas Gutierrez donning Spiderman headgear are unfortunately long gone.
In a world saturated by political correctness, absolutely everything can be perceived as 'offensive', 'inappropriate' or 'unsafe' if people deliberately choose to see things in a certain way. Most acts of celebration in football remain perfectly innocent, whilst others are just subject to unreasonable rules.
That being said, players must still hold a responsibility for drawing a line when it comes to what is not acceptable. Polish goalkeeper Artur Boruc was guilty of deliberate inflammatory behaviour when he chose to wear a t-shirt in memory of the late Pope John Paul II in the sectarian environment of an Old Firm Derby in 2008. Nicolas Anelka recently received a lengthy ban after being found guilty of celebrating a goal with an anti-Semitic gesture, while Robbie Fowler was handed a similar suspension in 1999 for simulating the act of snorting cocaine after scoring.
There are further examples of players going too far beyond the realms of acceptable behaviour, but individuals must know what is okay and what is not. However, football's governing bodies must also employ common sense in the censoring rules and regulations that they continue to set. Otherwise football will soon be without the diverse characters, the culture, the quirkiness and the humour that really make it what it is and popular the world over.
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