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The Messi Business of Goal Celebrations

Goals in soccer are exciting. They're more rare and important than tallies in most other sports, and are often the final release of long periods of sustained pressure. Grant likes to use the orgasm analogy to explain why fans and players often celebrate with such explosive excitement. I'm not really comfortable with that, if only because I watch soccer with Grant fairly frequently, and it makes me feel as if I need to edge away from him slightly every time Chelsea scores.

But there are limits to how over-the-top a player is allowed to get when he scores. Some of those limits, I have to say, make no sense.
Here's what the FIFA Laws of the Game have to say about it:

While it is permissible for a player to demonstrate his joy when a goal has been
scored, the celebration must not be excessive.
Reasonable celebrations are allowed, but the practice of choreographed
celebrations is not to be encouraged when it results in excessive time-wasting
and referees are instructed to intervene in such cases.
A player must be cautioned if:
• in the opinion of the referee, he makes gestures which are provocative,
derisory or inflammatory
• he climbs on to a perimeter fence to celebrate a goal being scored
• he removes his shirt or covers his head with his shirt
• he covers his head or face with a mask or other similar item
Leaving the field of play to celebrate a goal is not a cautionable offence in itself
but it is essential that players return to the field of play as soon as possible.
Referees are expected to act in a preventative manner and to exercise common
sense in dealing with the celebration of a goal.

But does Lionel Messi really deserve to be fined for wishing his mom a happy birthday? Is anyone offended by that? I realize that it's a slippery slope, the whole message on the shirt thing. Kaka took things too far with his Jesus-lovin' undershirt at Milan – religion has no place in football, in my opinion – but surely no one's going to be offended by little Lionel's happy birthday message to his mom. Seriously. If the Spanish FA wants this thing nipped in the bud, just pressure the clubs to prevent their players from doing in the first place, and judge any case that does come up on its own merits. That means vigorously stamping out anything that's actually offensive, as much as it means not coming across as draconian mother-haters every time someone says "Hi Mom!" on TV. (And I'm not just saying that because Cesc Fabregas did the same thing earlier this season.)

The shirt-removal thing is a bit of a mystery to me, as well. What's the harm in a player taking his shirt off, apart from the obvious "Dude, c'mon man" reaction sane people have whenever any guy takes his shirt off in public for no real reason. No one's getting hurt – unless FIFA is afraid the man's nipples might get chafed if he ends the celebration with a chest-slide on the grass. It's not really offensive to anyone. And it opens up the possibility of hilarious embarrassment if the player throws the shirt away and can't find it afterwards, which would make him look like an idiot, and we'd all secretly love that.

Worse still, is the shirt-over-the-head rule. Is FIFA afraid the guy might run into something? Surely taking his shirt clean off would be safer, wouldn't it? I'm just not getting what the problem is. I can't say I even understand the nudist inclination that even brought this issue about – I didn't play soccer as a kid, but any sporting success I have had wasn't immediately followed by a natural desire to disrobe.

There is one obvious-but-a-bit-out-there explanation: Is this just cow-towing to shirt sponsors? They pay bajillions to have their name on a player's chest, and they'd want to make sure that after a goal – when all the attention is on "their" player – they want their logo to be clearly seen and (in some insidious, advertise-y way) associated with the joy that goal brought. FIFA does like money, so the conspiracy theorist in me says yes, even if it seems a touch ridiculous.

What really boggles the mind, then, is that while tucking your shirt up over your head is a clear no-no, those absurd choreographed celebrations are allowed, if tacitly so. Apart from often being just stupid, these celebrations can genuinely be offensive to opposing players and fans, I'd argue, because of the arrogant, mocking overtones. Watching your team get scored against is frustrating for a fan, especially if it's a big goal, and for that to be followed by a protracted dance routine, angling impression or short, violent off-broadway play is rubbing salt in a bit. It's the kind of thing that could be fairly reasonably considered provocation to the fans. It's not that I don't enjoy them, or I think they should be banned – they're fun, sure, and they can be quite clever. I just think they're certainly more provocative than pulling your shirt over your head. I think the rule here is right – let the ref decide if these celebrations have gone on too long or are offensive or what have you – which highlights how over-the-top some of the other rules are.

Some goal celebrations, of course, are inherently bad for the game. I may be biased, but for me Adebayor's celebration for Man City against Arsenal last year falls squarely into that category. Sure it was crappy because he scored and Arsenal lost, but even a neutral observer can't deny that running the length of the field to purposefully antagonize thousands of angrily enlivened people is a dangerous thing. I think the Eastlands steward whose arm was broken as he fell the ensuing melee can attest to that. Adebayor was rightly carded and fined. Job well done by the ref and the FA, with the specific punishment fitting the specific crime.

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But Adebayor's provocation is a far cry from, say, Frederick Piquionne's celebration last weekend for West Ham away at Everton. Piquionne certainly contravened the laws of the game when he leaped over the advertising hoardings and jumped into the travelling fans' arms after scoring. He certainly ran afoul of the spirit of the "climbs on to a perimeter fence to celebrate a goal being scored," and the letter of the law says he gets a yellow card for that. And, since he was already on a yellow, he gets a red and is off. All fit and proper under the rules.

But the rules are dumb, in this case. FIFA likes to talk about soccer being joyful, so why cap that joy? Who's being hurt by a player celebrating with his own fans? The fans love it, the player isn't likely to get hurt – at least he's not any more so than in a ten-man on-pitch dogpile with his own teammates – and it isn't offensive to the opposing team or its fans. So what's the harm?

Not exactly known for his eloquence, West Ham manager Avram Grant hit the nail on the head after that game, which ended in a 2-2 draw. "Next time I will tell my players to go to a funeral when they score," Grant said. "[Piquionne] scored a goal and went to celebrate with the supporters. He has not done anything wrong – he went to celebrate with the people who deserve to more than anybody... I know it is the law but it is a stupid law and we need to change it."

In the end, the most telling bit of the laws on celebrations is the end: "Referees are expected to act in a preventative manner and to exercise common sense in dealing with the celebration of a goal." But how much common sense do they actually have the freedom to exercise is debatable; how much common sense was applied in drafting the rules themselves is, too.