While the turn of the millennium was a golden age for footballers behaving badly, Mark Bosnich was more controversial than most of his contemporaries. Though he was widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the Premier League during his heyday at Aston Villa, his salacious antics off the pitch belied his cherubic features and boyish facade. If 'Bozza' wasn't splashed across the front pages for featuring in a sex tape in which he was whipped over the arse with a belt while wearing a dress, he was being arrested for scrapping with photographers outside strip clubs five hours before he was due to get married. There was also the matter of his stonking cocaine habit, which may have contributed to the failed drugs test that saw him sacked by Chelsea and given a lengthy ban from football. According to a tabloid confessional from 2003 he was on up to six grammes of blow a day afterwards, an amount that some might consider heroic in the context of a standalone session but which, in the context of his life and career, was mainly just sad.
Along with his supposed proclivity for fast food binges and Chinese takeaways – in the unimaginatively titled My Autobiography, Alex Ferguson called Bosnich a "terrible professional" on account of his shambolic diet – there was a sense in which the chirpy New South Walian allowed himself to be made into a crude national cliche. Though he was a gifted stopper and penalty specialist who was talented enough to sign for Manchester United (twice), he was also a gift to the British tabloids in that he was an Australian on a seemingly endless bender. That said, whatever his proclivity for quality chop and tempestuous celebrity relationships, he was often indulged as one of the boys and a stereotypical Aussie living the high life. He still is, in fact, having made a successful career for himself as a boisterous raconteur on Australia's Fox Sports.
Considering that Bosnich now has a relatively high-profile role in the Australian media, it seems that his most controversial moment in football has been somewhat overlooked. After all, while Paul Merson, Charlie Nicholas and other such pundits have experienced their fair share of overindulgence, none of them can claim to have caused a public scandal with a Nazi salute. That was exactly what Bosnich did, however, when Aston Villa travelled to White Hart Lane in early October 1996, this in a season that would otherwise see the Villans lauded for a fifth-place finish. Unfortunately, they rather disgraced themselves in a 1-0 loss to Spurs, mainly on account of Bosnich Sieg Heiling in front of a crowd that is famed for its strong Jewish affinity.
Bosnich had history with Spurs supporters, having knocked out Jurgen Klinsmann in a thunderous collision at Villa Park two seasons previous. The incident was dangerous and earned Bosnich considerable opprobrium, and rather summed him up in that, even at his best, he could be reckless, self-destructive and rash. From the moment he walked out on to the pitch at White Hart Lane that October, Bosnich was greeted with chants of Klinsmann's name and, in his recollection, subjected to taunts about his nationality. Early in the second half, he retaliated by raising his left arm towards the crowd while miming a Hitleresque moustache, goose-stepping all the while.
Unsurprisingly, the backlash to his gesture was instant. While referee Peter Jones failed to spot the incident, he was notified by his linesman and the outraged roar of those looking on. It was only when he booked Bosnich for unsportsmanlike behaviour that the goalkeeper seemed to realise the seriousness of the situation, protesting vehemently in the aftermath and arguing on after the final whistle. When the police knocked on the door of the away dressing room wanting to interview Bosnich and his manager Brian Little, the gravity with which his behaviour would be treated must have become apparent to him and his teammates alike.
Having questioned Bosnich over what they would officially describe as "a racial gesture to the crowd", the police announced they would continue to investigate owing to a series of complaints from spectators. In the end they left Bosnich's punishment up to the FA, who let him off with a misconduct charge and a £1,000 fine. On the evening of the match, Bosnich called up Radio 5 Live and offered a heavily qualified mea culpa. "To be honest I'm a bit distraught," he said. "I'd just like to say that it was something done out of ignorance. For me it was a real joke, but it's been taken so much out of proportion and I'm so, so sorry. I know the Spurs fans have lost people in the war, but I also lost people in the war."
Whatever Bosnich's family history in relation to the World War II, most would agree that losing relatives in that particular conflict is little excuse for evoking Hitler at White Hart Lane. Though Bosnich claimed ignorance in regards to Tottenham's links to the Jewish community, he had – barring one season with Sydney United – been playing in England for seven years at this point, making his supposed naivety ring hollow. Bosnich also claimed that he had been recreating the infamous 'Don't mention the war' scene from Fawlty Towers, which although plausibly idiotic hardly shielded him from accusations of extreme insensitivity. The real question, however, was whether there was something even more sinister going on.
Though there is little evidence to suggest that Bosnich could accurately be termed far right in his politics, he has been quoted as saying that he later left Manchester United because his right-wing views saw him clash with Alex Ferguson. Still, while he has reportedly admitted to a fondness for Conservatism and Margaret Thatcher, this can hardly be taken by extension to mean he had political sympathies to match his Nazi salute. That said, there is still a strong suspicion that Bosnich knew what he was doing when he Sieg Heiled towards the Spurs fans, even if he did think his jaunty goose-step would be somehow funny. Though he has consistently protested to the contrary, there are many who remember the gesture as deliberately crass and provocative, while the antisemitic overtones of the incident are a point of discussion to this day.
Ultimately, only Bosnich knows exactly what was going through his head when he decided to raise his left arm at supporters. Perhaps because of his reputation as a boneheaded hellraiser and laddish Aussie, there were many outside observers who were willing to write the incident off as fundamentally moronic and inane. Much as Bozza used to play up to the British tabloids with his playboy persona and party lifestyle, he has cultivated a lighthearted image in his career as a pundit and generally presents himself as an affable joker. That, combined with the obfuscating effect of a litany of other controversies, is perhaps why he has managed to shake off the worst of the criticism that followed the gesture. Often a history of Sieg Heiling in public can be something of a barrier when it comes to television work, but Bosnich is clearly the exception to this particular rule.
Whatever the intention behind his Sieg Heil at White Hart Lane, Bosnich is only so contrite about the incident as to use it as material for after-dinner speaking. Filmed at an event in 2013, Bosnich regaled attendees with a comic retelling that probably represents the best evidence of his feelings on the matter. His story is an excruciating example of self-justification, with obligatory references to his Jewish agent, his Jewish lawyers, Fawlty Towers (again) and political correctness gone mad. He also attempts to present a left-armed Sieg Heil as somehow harmless on the basis of a letter of support he was sent by a World War II veteran, an idea that appears to have little grounding in reality. As such, it is up to the viewer to judge whether this was another moment of absurd thoughtlessness from Bosnich, or whether in fact he feels little remorse over a gesture that was as shameless as it was contemptible.