Illustration by Sam Taylor
Charlie Adam looked a bit confused. Yes, he’d just scored only his eighth goal in almost three years, but that wasn’t it. His dilemma was this: How should he celebrate against Liverpool, a team he’d once played for?
Adam started out with a one-handed salute of apology – the now-traditional response when you find that you've somehow wound up sticking one past a former team. But then, mid-way through, he seemed to remember how Liverpool had made him a scapegoat for much of their troubles under Kenny Dalglish. How they'd alienated him from the first team. And, worst of all, how they'd sold him to Stoke. He stopped short of screaming phlegmy obscenities down the camera to Dalglish, but he did at least show some form of vindictive glee as he turned to face his own fans. “I fucking hate those guys,” he may as well have mouthed.
But Adam's efforts were in vain, for the war on sanctimony had already been lost just minutes earlier, by fellow Stoke-based Liverpool reject Peter Crouch. That Crouch refused to celebrate his goal was not very surprising – after all, Peter Crouch is the kind of guy who buys the clean version of Jessie J songs off iTunes – but it did serve to confirm our gravest fears: that football is suffering from a muted celebration epidemic.
There’s an implied pressure for players to perform a muted celebration. "Non-celebration" isn't the right term; it suggests there will be no celebration at all. That a player, after scoring against a club that used to employ him, will drop limp like a puppet that’s suddenly had its strings cut as soon as the ball hits the net.
The muted celebration has become a celebration in its own right, and even has its own variations. Players can hold their hands over their head in forced apology, or they can push their hands down by their sides to the ground, presumably demonstrating to everyone that they are literally pushing down their jubilation. Just in case anyone wasn’t clear on that. There’s even the hands-clasped-together, pleading-to-the-crowd-for-forgiveness non-celebration. The latter is the most disingenuous but all three are accepted ways to not celebrate. And whenever it happens, the gears of social media grind to a halt.
Take the response to Crouch and Adam's goals against Liverpool. “No celebration from Crouch after that goal #respect,” tweeted one Kopite. Another read: “Respect to Peter Crouch today for his low key goal celebration. Charlie Adam on the other hand…”
Social media is the cause of this problem. In the old days players would only have to worry about meeting their fans twice a season. They could lord it up in front of them because they wouldn’t see them again for another six months. Now, thanks to social media, they’re only a broadband connection away from those supporters. Best behaviour is required at all times. Twitter is watching.
The #mutedcelebration is a kind of pre-emptive measure taken to rid a player of any responsibility for what they’ve just done. Players can handle boos and jeers and even the odd coin splitting their head open, but Twitter abuse? Fuck that shit. Just like the @evilkagawa account and all those pictures of Starbucks cups filtered to look like they were found in your nan's bra drawer, the non-celebration is an unwanted by-product of the social media age. The end game, you see, is to stay out of the trending topics; Twitter’s shortlist of who and what to be angry with at any one time. Boris Johnson, Katie Hopkins, Joey Barton, infrequent bin collections, Match of the Day, the Daily Mail, Katie Hopkins… If you keep your name off the trolling index – which lurks permanently on the left-hand side of millions of morons' computer screens, remember – then you’ve executed the muted celebration perfectly.
Of course, some players don’t subscribe to the muted celebration paradigm.
When Emmanuel Adebayor (who, tellingly, didn’t have Twitter at the time) set off on his full-pitch sprint celebration after scoring for Man City against Arsenal, it established a gold standard of celebrating a goal against a former team. It was glorious. A ten-yard knee slide in front of the opposition fans left him propped up like Michael Jackson in the "Earth Song" video, with debris – bottles, coins, flaming small children – raining down on him.
Carlos Tevez (who, tellingly, has never had Twitter) didn’t just rub City’s 2012 title triumph in United faces, he held Alex Ferguson’s head under water while manically muttering, "Why won’t you just die?" Okay, so he held up a sign that read "RIP Fergie" during an open-top bus parade (supposedly in reference to a “not in my lifetime” jibe by Ferguson), but the sentiment was basically the same. That may have been a little vulgar, but a muted celebration would have been even more offensive.
Apart from anything else, the muted celebration is patronising. For example, look at the way Robin van Persie bashfully held up his hands after scoring for Man Utd against Arsenal last season. It only took him three minutes to find the net in his first game against the Gunners as a United player. He’d just humiliated Arsenal, basically showing them that yes, he can score whenever he fucking wants and he’ll do it to shut up the very fans who used to sing his signature chant.
If he’d wanted to show complete respect to his former team he shouldn’t have scored. Did he think that by holding up his hands he’d make it easier for an Arsenal fan to see him in a United shirt? And whom did he think he was sparing? The same pissed-up moron in a McKenzie hoodie who a couple of minutes earlier had been gallantly singing about how van Persie raped someone?
Whatever he felt first time round, he clearly didn’t feel when he netted the winner against Arsenal for a struggling United this season, celebrating like Marty McFly knee-sliding in the Johnny B Goode scene. And what about Robbie Keane? The Irish striker refuses to celebrate goals against his former teams, yet this is a guy who has played for ten clubs in little over 15 years. Loyalty clearly isn’t a principle he holds especially dearly.
Is the thinking that footballers are cheating on their true loves by scoring against a former team? "I scored against you but look! I was thinking about you the entire time." Affairs aren’t usually broadcast live on TV, so is performing a muted celebration the equivalent of filming the teary moment of climax with a fling to show your love that they’re still "the one"? Because that never works.
In some (very rare) cases, the muted celebration is begrudgingly acceptable. When Cristiano Ronaldo scored the goal for Real Madrid that would knock Man United out of last season’s Champion's League, his non-celebration actually verged on sincere. Like Ralph in that episode of The Simpsons you could almost pinpoint the exact moment his heart snapped in two. But even this felt somewhat sickly.
Football takes itself very seriously in 2013. The non-celebration against a former team is a tedious sign of how solemn and self-obsessed the game has become, and just how precious fans have grown. It seems there's no better way to rally a crowd than with bitterness disguised as moral outrage, and for a game that – in this country, at least – has founded itself on providing an outlet for mass displays of bitterness, that's a huge shame. Say no to the muted celebration, just like Charlie Adam sort of did.