LONDON (JTA) — Soccer star Samuel Eto’o defended his disgraced colleague Nicolas Anelka, who was penalized for performing a quasi-Nazi salute.
Eto’o, a citizen of Spain and of his native Cameroon, on Monday offered his defense of Anelka, a former West Bromwich Albion player who received a five-game ban from the European soccer association for performing the quenelle gesture in 2013 and subsequently left his team.
“Nicolas is a dear friend and I know he’s very far from racist things,” Eto’o said at a news conference held at Kensington Palace in London by the European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation, or ECTR. Eto’o, who plays for Italy’s Unione Calcio Sampdoria team, is also an activist and initiator of many campaigns for tolerance in sports. He has walked out of matches over racist taunts, bringing major games to a halt.
ECTR President Moshe Kantor – who is also president of the European Jewish Congress — presented Eto’o and FARE, a group fighting xenophobia in sports, with a Medal of Tolerance given out by his organization.
The quenelle — the act of folding one arm over one’s chest while stretching down the other arm — was created by the French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala, who has multiple convictions for inciting hate against Jews and Holocaust denial. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls called it an “anti-Semitic gesture of hate,” but Anelka after performing it repeated Dieudonne’s claim that the quenelle was an anti-establishment gesture.
Anelka also said his quenelle was a gesture of appreciation for Dieudonne.
“Anelka wasn’t the only professional soccer player who was seen performing the quenelle, only the only one punished,” Eto’o told journalists before receiving the medal. “It’s not my place to say if performers of quenelle should be punished. I just want to see more understanding and less racism in sports.”
Fans who chant anti-Semitic slogans and other xenophobic messages, Eto’o added, “should be punished, jailed even, but this does not mean whole teams should be punished collectively because of a handful of bad apples.”
Kantor praised Eto’o but took a stricter line on the quenelle and Anelka.
“In December 2013, Nicolas Anelka used the quenelle — an inverted Nazi salute which he turned into an international news story,” Kantor said. “But similarly a [soccer] player can deliver positive messages, like Eto’o and the FARE network.”