Goal celebrations in football go through fashions and phases, don’t they? Back in about the 1960s people were horrified when, instead of a quick and embarrassing handshake as players trotted back to the re-start, there was a lot of apparent kissing and cuddling. Then, towards the end of the century, there developed a range of eccentric celebrations, involving the rocking of imaginary babies or fairly erotic uses of corner flags, and this went on for some time. Now, in addition to career-threatening knee-slides, it’s all about huddles and cuddles, not to mention fairly explicit kisses.
Now this is a little odd insofar as football is often held up as outrageously outdated in its sexual attitudes, and with allegedly no sympathy for homosexual activity. We often read about the hounding of players who are suspected or accused of being gay. Yet when it comes to goal celebrations they are all over one another , not content with high fives or manly hugs, but all heads-together intimacy.
This is only one of the curious – and rather annoying – contradictions of the phenomenon. I mean, when players feel the merest touch of a hand on their large, well-muscled bodies they collapse in a heap; if the offending hand goes near their face they go down like a boxer on the wrong end of drubbing. But after scoring a goal players will stand facing the crowd and miraculously bear the weight of team-mates leaping on to their shoulders from behind with little or no warning. Players can even survive being on the bottom of a ten-man pile-up, surely crushed and asphyxiated, but instead, coming up last and brushing themselves down as calmly as if they had just come out of the fitting room in Fat Face. The effects of the goal are just so amazing!
Of course, there is an element of calculation in all this, as can be seen in the cases of non-celebration. Those who score against former clubs often manage to stifle any expression of triumph, even managing to look embarrassed. Meanwhile, a player who scores when the side is 0-3 down with ten minutes to go will also by-pass the cuddles as he retrieves the ball with ruthless single-mindedness to hurry back to the centre circle for what he hopes is a rapid kick-off.
I can understand this. In my own current sport of bowls, it feels great for the team to celebrate a good shot noisily and with hand- or shoulder-slapping, in the knowledge that the opposition will feel all the more deflated. In other words, there is an element of intimidation in the celebration – and it’s harder to intimidate someone when you are getting a hammering: you just have to get on with it and hope for a miracle.
But I don’t want to be too cynical. The scoring system in football means that there is such a premium on putting the ball in the net that when it happens it often does seem like a bit of a miracle. The scorer is briefly elevated into another form of existence: just look at how the dour, earnest faces of these hard-bitten professionals are transformed into the innocence of childhood by their achievement. It’s a look of such simple, unalloyed joy that you wonder if there is anything – really, anything! – to compare with it. And you can’t celebrate that with a simple handshake…