Time to stop getting shirty over celebrations

As Rudi Skacel ended Hearts’ goal drought last month, firing a typically clinical finish past Inverness keeper Ryan Esson, something considerably more poignant was celebrated by the Czech midfielder. As he turned to receive the adulation from the Gorgie faithful he lifted his maroon jersey over his head, revealing a t-shirt underneath emblazoned with the words “Sinky for Hearts”.

For those not of a maroon persuasion it wasn’t an immediately obvious gesture, but most Hearts fans would have recognised the name of a well loved and popular supporter who sadly passed away last year. Skacel had visited the devoted Jambo on a number of occasions in hospice during his final months, growing quite close to him. He glanced upwards and pointed to the skies after pulling his shirt back down, commemorating the goal to a man who would have appreciated it more than anyone.

At a time where many of us have been forced to put football into perspective, it does seem absurd that the next action for referee Craig Thomson in the match was to produce a yellow card and caution Skacel for his ‘offence’. But, as we all know, the referees’ hands are tied when it comes to this matter, as they are merely following the laws of the game.

The nonsensical rule is one that irritates many football supporters, myself included. Whether it is a player paying homage to someone who has passed on, or simply a player showing his jubilation at scoring an important goal, it just seems so needless to discipline them for their actions. Football is an emotional and exciting sport, part of the reason for it being so popular, so why suppress part of what makes the game so great?

Letter of the Law

The rules of the game are are published by FIFA, but only with the approval of the International Football Association Board(IFAB), the body that actually writes and maintains the laws. The rules themselves read:

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

The third item would certainly appear to give referees very little room for manoeuvre, and images from FIFA documentation further explains just what does constitute a yellow card in these situations – referring to the offences as ‘unsporting behaviour’. (I must note that these images, and the wording that accompanies them, are taken directly from the FIFA handbook).

The one instance where they allow a degree of leniency is when a player does not lift his shirt any higher than his neck, as illustrated below.


There are a number of alleged reasons for the introduction of the law, or re-introduction since it had been relaxed for a number of years until around 2003/4 – when FIFA decided to make it a mandatory booking once more. One of the main reasons, apparently, for the return of such a bizarre rule was the worldwide broadcasting of football which had taken the sport into a great number of Muslim countries. Many see the revealing of a man’s bare chest as offensive, but I fail to see this as valid justification for an official law of the game. In many of these countries women are expected to hide their faces in public, yet Al Jazeera screened the Women’s World Cup just this year across much of the Middle East and North Africa. Respecting the beliefs of a nation whilst in the country itself is one thing, but I can’t accept this sort of censorship on a global scale.

I’ve also heard in the past that the ruling is often seen as something to appease sponsors, who are less than happy when a high profile footballer is pictured celebrating a goal without the shirt sponsorship logo in view. Whilst I understand this to a degree from the sponsors perspective, surely their brand gets enough exposure throughout a match and in many other ways? In addition to this, the images above clearly show that a player CAN in fact lift his shirt, therefore hiding the logo, without committing an offence, as long as he does not lift the shirt onto, or over, his head.


More obvious, and well documented, reasoning for the ruling is that authorities were concerned that religious, political or offensive messages may be displayed on t-shirts. The FIFA rules state;

Players must not reveal undergarments showing slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements. 

A player removing his jersey or shirt to reveal slogans or advertising will be sanctioned by the competition organiser. The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans or statements will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.

Slogan may not be the best word to use, but unfortunately this ruling can easily justify a yellow card to a player, no matter what message they display. But is this really necessary?

Common Sense

Messages are rarely political or offensive, in my experience anyway, but still the law means that no matter what the situation referees are forced to caution a player when he removes his shirt. Or do they?

Last month Doncaster striker Billy Sharp scored a goal against Middlesborough, and celebrated this by revealing a t-shirt underneath his shirt that read ‘That’s for you son’. Just a matter of days prior to the match Sharp’s new born son had sadly passed away, after being on this earth for a mere two days. The tragedy had been well documented, and there was a minute’s applause prior to kick off. So referee Darren Deadman was well aware of the circumstances, and in light of all this made the decision NOT to book Sharp. He was widely commended for the decision, and I have to agree with that sentiment – as it would have seemed terribly insensitive, and lacking in common sense, to flash a card in such a situation.

Common Sense. Two key words in deciding whether or not Deadman SHOULD, by the letter of the law, have shown Sharp a yellow card, regardless of the circumstances. Following the specific bookable offences section in the FIFA rules, it states:

‘Referees are expected to act in a preventative manner and to exercise common sense in dealing with the celebration of a goal.’

But if this can then be interpreted as leeway when it comes to cases such as the Sharp one, surely more referees could refrain from booking players after removing their shirts without fear of retribution themselves?

The images above, and the specific wording of the law, would seem to indicate that referees do not have a choice.

But just last weekend another example of common sense prevailing occurred at Brammall Lane as Sheffield United defeated Torquay 3-2.  United striker Ched Evans paid tribute to his Welsh compatriot Gary Speed following the tragic death of the manager.

Evans revealed a t-shirt with the message ‘Rest in Peace Speedo’ after scoring in the FA Cup clash on Saturday, and referee Christopher Sarginson decide not to punish the player.

The decision was later praised by Sheffield United manager Danny Wilson, who said.

“It was also classy from the ref too because when he realised what was going on he stopped himself from doing it straight away.

“He might get in to trouble for doing that because the laws of the game say Ched had to be booked but I hope he doesn’t.”

Ultimately I’d like to believe that the IFAB and FIFA will review and alter the law at some point in the near future, and allow common sense to truly prevail. However, I’m not convinced that such a scenario will be forthcoming – so in the mean time players should maybe just manipulate the law to their advantage.

Every single justification for this ridiculous law is rendered obsolete by the image shown above which clearly illustrates that a player can lift his shirt without committing a bookable offence, as long as it doesn’t go higher than his neck. His bare chest can be on show for all to see and the expensively placed sponsorship logo hidden away from view. Alas, personal messages displayed for loved ones who may have passed on can still be penalised – which just seems ludicrous considering a player CAN legally lift his shirt high enough to display such a message, so it’s solely the ‘slogan’ itself that is an ‘offence’. As pictured in the Ched Evans incident, he doesn’t break the rules with the actual lifting of the shirt itself, and the referee decided to take the common sense approach to the message on the undergarment.

Of course if something offensive is displayed then this may well deserve disciplinary action, but surely such a decision should be based on interpretation and common sense rather than a standard booking across the board. Hopefully in the future the football authorities will be far less shirty on such matters, but for now maybe players just need to act more strategically in the their moment of ecstasy to bend the rules in their favour – and I can only hope that more referees show some common sense when it comes to personal messages. If they have the ability to do so in certain cases, then I can’t see why they shouldn’t for many more.

L Dunsire

Hearts supporter and film enthusiast from Musselburgh. Follow me on Twitter @lauriedunsire

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