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Celebrating a goal is an art form. Here’s how soccer stars do it right

Your indispensable guide to the art of the soccer goal celebration.

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

There are as many goal celebrations as there are footballers that score. They come in all forms, from the solemn expression of kissing the club badge to the manic explosion of running and screaming after scoring the best goal of the century against Getafe. But many of these fall into certain categories, and here we don't necessarily rank them, but determine what makes each good and, in some cases, why some should be avoided.

The Fury

A modest proposal: most goalscorers are happy to have scored a goal. Even those indulging themselves with a muted celebration — more on them later — are happy, they've just decided that any over evidence of that happiness can be sacrificed on the altar of their own. But every now and then, some strange psychological cocktail of focus and provocation and personal drive curdles into something peculiar, and a footballer scores a goal, then goes ballistic.

Temuri Ketsbaia is the finest example, using the moment after a goal to remove his shirt, attempt to remove his boot, then brutally take revenge on an advertising hoarding that had, we can only surmise, looked at him a bit funny. He also nearly elbows one of his teammates in the face. And it's great! When it happens every now and then, it's rather invigorating; it's a release, a primal scream, and we can all get on board with that.

Not every week, though. That might get a bit weird.

The Provocation

Another modest proposal: If we can consider a football crowd as a single entity, albeit one with multiple voices, then we have to concede that quite a lot of the time, beyond all the singing and supporting and general atmosphere generation, that single entity is a dick.

This isn't necessarily wrong, of course; the freedom to call a passing opposition player a "fucking wanker" is one worth fighting for. But there has to be a give and take here, and we have to recognize that when that "fucking wanker" decides to turn around and tell the crowd that they, in fact, are the "fucking wankers," then they have to be permitted to. Apart from anything else, they've got the moral high ground. They didn't start it.

Not that they can actually do that, of course; that magically collapses the crowd back down to individuals and then the footballer gets fined. No, the footballer's riposte is via the medium of the provocative celebration. The cupped ear is the most common, followed perhaps by the finger to the lips, but there have been a few personalized variations. Gary Neville's Anfield sexy dance. Cristiano Ronaldo's "simmer down" celebration against Barcelona. And, of course, Emmanuel Adebayor's knee slide.

Every now and then, what is generally an indulgent (if understandable) response can be re-purposed for more noble ends. Samuel Eto'o's decision to turn the monkey gestures back on the Cagliari supporters did more to make his abusers look stupid than a hundred well-meaning op-eds and paltry fines.

The Dance

Dancing is cheating. Normally the path to cult-hero status is a long and winding one, taking on a couple of crucial goals against rivals, or maybe a forthright stance on some matter close to the hearts of the fans. But in the pre-World Cup friendlies in 2006, Peter Crouch decided that he couldn't be doing with any of that nonsense and endeared himself to the entire of England by scoring against Hungary and Jamaica, then doing the robot.

By doing so, he was taking his place in a rich heritage of choreographed joy. Arguably the first celebration to really capture the world's imagination was Roger Milla's corner-flag hip swing, while more recently Daniel Sturridge has attempted to monetize his wriggly arms dance through a range of hats. Though he's flogging them via an email address on Twitter and has apparently been told to stop wearing them on the Liverpool bench, so let's not call that a success just yet. Players need to be careful, however: Dancing is fine, but there's always the terrible risk of doing a Zenden.

The Acrobatics

Brilliant when done well, with bonus points for annoying managers. Alex Ferguson even tried to ban Nani from doing his flips, though Nani, being Nani, occasionally forgot. Fun fact: Wayne Rooney scored his first goal for England at any level against Scotland in the Victory Shield, and celebrated with a somersault. Fourteen years later, he scored against Scotland again ... and did it again.

Additional fun fact: Wayne Rooney is not one of God's chosen somersaulters.

The Joke

You get one shot at this. If you've been in the papers for something naughty — not nasty, merely naughty — then the very next game, if you score, you get to take the piss out of the story and yourself. Like Bellamy with his golf clubs, like Rooney shadowboxing himself to the ground. If you do, and you do, then the whole story vanishes in a cloud of amused chuckling and you have achieved for free what might otherwise have cost a fortune in PR services. We can only imagine that Nicklas Bendtner could have salvaged his career if he celebrated a goal by pretending to hump an invisible taxi. Of course, he'd have had to score a goal first.

Also, incontrovertible proof that Jimmy Bullard is at his funniest when you can't hear his voice.

The Prayer

We don't know if Richard Dawkins watches football — he seems far too self-consciously rational for something so silly — but we have to admire those footballers that, on the off chance he does, are trying to annoy him. 10/10.

The Signature

A tricky one, this. Naturally, it's impressive that Alan Shearer scored so many goals that his raised arm became a thing, or that Francesco Totti was so good for so long that his thumbsucking stopped being weird and started being just a thing that he did. There a sense in which these celebrations — particularly when performed by players who've been at the same club for a while — take on a sentimental aspect. Like the unthinking rituals of a long-married couple, they become tiny exchanges of affection woven into the fabric of their lives. This happens. So this happens. The fans shout at Ronaldinho. Ronaldinho spins and bows at the fans. Everybody smiles, the world spins on, and all is right.

(There are signatures that don't quite manage this, usually because the player in question doesn't quite score enough goals. Bafétimbi Gomis' panther, for instance, hasn't quite become as iconic. Still, bless him for trying.)

But like everything in football and the world, that sweetness is there to be optimized and squeezed for cash. Think of Cristiano Ronaldo, who developed his leaping, twisting, bellowing footplant just as his vanity project biopic went into production. Or Gareth Bale, who upon his departure from Spurs decided to attempt to trademark the act of making a heart with fingers while thinking about the No. 11. Nobody ever loved a brand, kids.

(We're only letting Sturridge off here — see the Dance, above — because he's been so endearingly half-arsed about it. Also, it's hard to monetize something when you exist for three months out of every year.)

The Gimmick

We should probably acknowledge at this stage that there is a lot of overlap between these categories. But there is a distinction to be drawn between what we're calling a gimmick here, and what we called a signature, above. Signature celebrations belong to one person: If anybody apart from Shearer lifted one arm and ran around a bit, they'd be torn apart by a crowd of protective Geordies.

Gimmicks, on the other hand, belong to everybody. Whether invented by some footballer or stolen from popular culture, they are there for anybody who wants them and who feels the moment take them. Bebeto may have been the first footballer to celebrate a goal by rocking an imaginary baby, but he wasn't the last, and now any footballer wanting to advertise their fecundity can do likewise.

Gimmicks are necessarily more transitory than signatures; some are only appropriate in certain moments, while others come and go with fashions. Nobody ever got down on one knee and polished their teammate's boot after a tap-in, and we don't know if Jesse Lingard will still be doing the dab in five years' time.

Are gimmicks any good, though? Well ... yes and no. Once they become gimmicks, they obviously have to contend with a certain lack of freshness; the boot-cleaning is still kind of endearing (and was upgraded to kissing during Euro 2016) but the baby-rocking has been passé for a good long while. The only time they become unquestionably excellent is when they start to irritate those parts of the media that still think all goals should be marked with a manly handshake and nothing more. Well, possibly a back slap. If it's a cup final. The Manchester Evening News even described Lingard's dab as "cringing," delivering up England's own storebrand version of the Cam Newton nonsense.

Dab on, young Jesse. Dab like the wind.

The Dedication (or maybe The Ritual)

Plenty of football's most notable goalscorers, past and present, have incorporated some aspect of dedications into their celebrations. Frank Lampard and Leo Messi both point to the sky, shoutouts to their mother and grandmother respectively, while Kaká does the same in honor of his owner, Jesus. Luis Suárez kisses his wrist, where he has tattooed the names of his children, while Raúl always kissed his ring finger. We assume that was in tribute to his wife, though maybe he was just a really big Nine Inch Nails fan.

It would take a hard heart indeed to be irritated in any way by such gestures, so instead, let's ponder just how active a dedication we're considering here. Do Leo Messi's thoughts actively turn to his grandmother every time — "She took me to football but now she can't see how far I have come. Nevertheless, she continues to help me and my family." — or has the point to the sky become ... not a habit, exactly, but a ritual. Part of the general package of sporting superstition; the things that have to be done a certain way, every time, because otherwise nothing else works.

Not a criticism, of course; that's just how people work. And presumably all footballers are different in this regard: Kaká, for example, we can imagine actually taking a moment to think about Jesus after every goal, because he's very into the whole Jesus business. So much so that he once, famously, decided that the usual acknowledgement wasn't good enough, and took to the field in an I BELONG TO JESUS t-shirt. "He's talking about me," said Silvio Berlusconi, probably.

Speaking of t-shirts and messages, there's one kind of dedication that only ever happens in the saddest of occasions and generally just the once; as such, it's kind of amazing that it found its way to the very pinnacle of football. Scoring the winning goal in a World Cup final is pretty cool. Scoring the goal and then dedicating the moment to your recently passed friend is an untoppable moment of sweetness and generosity. Nice one, Andrés.

Pic: Jamie McDonald/Getty

The Disrobement

So much fun they had to ban it. The problem with many of the celebrations above, good and bad, is that they lack a certain spontaneity. There should be an explosiveness to the moment a goal is scored, and a rehearsed dance move can't help but chafe against that. After all, as Robin van Persie once mused, scoring goals is like having sex. But the simple act of taking off one's shirt — or, in extreme circumstances, one's shorts — is, on the whole, among the more honestly spontaneous celebrations around.

It's also an engagingly strange thing to do. Here, more or less, is what passes for the thinking behind it ...


... except of course this isn't thinking at all, this is simple and unmediated doing, this is the id reaching out and grabbing the wheel and swerving all over the road. It's fun, too; athletes tend to be pretty acceptable to look at underneath all the polyester, even Ryan Giggs, and who among us cannot say that their day isn't improved by the sudden arrival of a couple of unexpected nipples? Exactly. Only referees.

We'll deal with messages under the shirt later on, but for now, let's take a moment to admire Uruguayan center forward Richard Morales, who was so certain that he was going to score that he thought ahead. The moment came, and he pulled off his shirt to reveal ... another shirt.

(1:06 in that video. It's funnier if you ignore the fact that this was, in fact, a tribute to an injured teammate, and instead pretend it's a man taking wise precautions against his own inevitable surrender to exhibitionism.)

The Look upon my works, ye mortals, and despair

If Mario Balotelli never achieves anything else in his career, then he'll have left us with several wonderful memories, not least this explanation of why he generally doesn't go overboard after he scores a goal:

"A postman doesn't celebrate when he delivers mail, why should I when I score goals?"

The crux here is not that Balotelli scores six days out of seven, usually around lunchtime, and occasionally has a fight with a dog. It's the glorious arrogance of it. That thing I did? That special thing? That special thing for that special team that you used to dream of doing, until reality and inadequacy forced all the dreams from your head? Yeah, no biggie.

Anybody watching has only two choices: Either they can bristle and lash out, and know deep down that they're being very silly indeed, or they can laugh along. The finest example of all time is, of course, Eric Cantona's goal against Sunderland. He'd not long come back to football after serving an eight-month ban for excessive and violent righteousness, and he'd just strolled 40 yards through midfield before floating a perfect chip over the head of the goalkeeper. And then he just stood there. Looking around. His magnificence all the more magnificent for its self-evidence.

It's only improved by the fact that you can see, just at the last second, just as he's engulfed by his United teammates, a tiny quiver and the faintest suggestion of a smile. He knows what he's doing. And he's loving it.

The Muted

The universe requires balance in all things, and so to offset the wonder of the non-celebrations above comes this abomination, this horror, this stinking and small thing that creeps in the shadows.

OK, there may once have been a place for the non-celebration. When Denis Law scored his notorious backheel for Manchester City, against Manchester United, you can see him start to celebrate, realize what he's done, and just sort of grind to a halt. That's the trauma of hurting that which you truly love.

But ever since it became a commandment — Thou shalt not celebrate against a team you once played for, even a little bit, even just on loan — it's become clear that this is nothing more than self-basting. The difference between this and the above is that one is about the celebration of sporting brilliance, the other is the assertion of moral rectitude. I have not celebrated, because I am so damn full of respect. Self-regard for one's own talents is absolutely acceptable. Self-regard for one's own character is nauseating.

The whole thing is starting to die out, thankfully — see Danny Welbeck's giddy and entirely appropriate celebrations when he returned to Old Trafford with Arsenal — and, in years to come, our children will ask their parents if it's true that once upon a time in the Premier League, a player didn't celebrate a goal against a team because they wanted to sign for that team. And we will say yes. We will say: That was Wes Hoolahan. And we will be rightly shamed for the times we lived through.