Along with the wonder goals, penalties, sending offs and pitch invasions, some of football’s most memorable moments have come in the form of the undershirt celebration: hastily scrawled or ironed-on messages expressing political views or religious beliefs, which players would lift their shirt to reveal after scoring a goal.
These messages often caused controversy – some were cheered, some were booed and others, mercilessly mocked. (Wayne Rooney’s Once a Blue, Always a Blue came back to haunt him after his surprise move from Everton to Manchester United in 2004). Some provided witty responses to stories in the media while others offered touching tributes to departed leaders and loved ones.
But while the undershirt celebration has become a familiar and much-loved fixture of football, it is at risk of dying out. In 2014, FIFA announced a new ruling banning players from revealing messages of any kind – whether religious, political, commercial or personal – on any part of their kit. Celebrations had previously been frowned upon and often resulted in bookings but the ruling introduced harsher fines and penalties. At this year’s Euros, they were nowhere to be seen.
In a loving homage to the tradition, Craig Oldham and Rick Banks have created a book which collects some of the most notable examples from the past 30 years. I Belong to Jesus (named after Ricky Kaká’s famous undershirt celebration) features examples from Premier League, non-league and female footballers from around the world.
The book is divided into four sections: folklore, religion, politics and personal. Each features images of various celebrations accompanied by a brief case study detailing the story behind it.
Mario Balotelli’s Why Always Me? celebration from 2011 was applied using official Premier League lettering – kitman Les “Chappy” Chapman arranged its application
Oldham and Banks have been working on the book for just under two years. Both are passionate football fans – Oldham is a Barnsley FC supporter and has written features on football mascots and crests for CR while Banks is a Bolton Wanderers Fan and previously published a brilliant book on football type.
In an introduction, the pair describe the book as a riposte to FIFA’s ruling. “Our initial reaction, quite unsurprisingly, was one of dismay,” they write. “The elation of celebrating a goal by sharing a personal, intentional message with the supporting masses is one of the last forums of unchecked, passionate discourse in football. A much-needed connection in an increasingly corporate game.”
As Oldham points out, the undershirt celebration is one of the last reminders of a time when football – and in particular, players’ behaviour – wasn’t heavily policed by brand managers and PR teams. A time when players weren’t afraid to express a point of view on the pitch.
Robbie Fowler’s 1997 celebration in support of Liverpool dockers
“Those idiosyncrasies are what make the game interesting,” he told CR. “Those controversies, whether it’s players doing something stupid or causing a scandal, they’re as much what we love about football as the football itself,” he adds.
Celebrations also offered a platform for players to communicate directly with fans in a much more authentic and honest way than a Tweet or an official club video. “It was the sort of last un-policed connection between player and supporter – it was direct, it was instant, no-one had any kind of filter on it. Players could say whatever they wanted and it all came out in that collective euphoria of scoring a goal,” says Oldham. “There’s no kind of dialogue anymore, apart from the chants that fans give players- and how else are we going to know what players care about? What they think of current events? How they react to things?”
Andrés Iniesta’s 2010 celebration paid tribute to Espanyol captain Dani Jarque, a close friend of the player’s who died unexpectedly of heart failure
The book contains some poignant examples as well as some amusing ones. The most moving is Doncaster United striker Billy Sharp’s “That’s for you son” – a dedication to his son who had died the previous week aged just two days old. Both sets of supporters applauded his goal against Middlesborough while referee Darren Deadman ignored the rules and refused to issue Sharp a yellow card for his actions.
Others reflect on conflict and political tensions outside of the beautiful game: Robbie Fowler’s “DoCKers, Sacked since September 1995” expressed solidarity with Liverpool dockers who had been sacked following a dispute with the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company (dockers had created t-shirts using a pastiche of Calvin Klein’s then fashionable CK t-shirts, and sold their own tops to raise funds for their cause).
Dmitri Tarasov’s image of Putin above the phrase ‘the most polite President’, meanwhile, a reference to the Russian troops sent in to occupy Crimea, caused outrage during a match against Turkey earlier this year. Tarasov was fined €5,000 but refused to apologise for his actions.
Ian Wright’s 1997 celebration marked his goalscoring record for Arsenal alongside a message from sponsor Nike
“That’s what I love about the book – on a surface level, people can flick through and say, ‘Oh I remember that game’ and it will take them on a personal journey, but in researching these things you also find out all these really meaningful, rich stories about the context of the celebration…. A lot of the time it wasn’t about football, it was like a protest. Players had something to say and they were fucking going to say it … it felt like proof that