Europe’s latest race-hate trend was exported to Britain this week after an anti-Semitic gesture described as a “Nazi salute in reverse” was performed by a French footballer playing in England’s top flight.

Nicolas Anelka, a 34-year old West Bromwich Albion player, performed the sign known in France as “la quenelle” while celebrating a goal on Saturday.

The stance is strongly associated with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial and has exploded into public consciousness, with sickening images appearing online of the “disgusting” sign being made around the world.

Sports stars including Manchester City’s playmaker Sami Nasri and NBA basketball star Tony Parker have issued speedy apologies after pictures of them performing the quenelle emerged.

The high-profile promotion appears to have encouraged people to mimic the salute at sensitive places like Auschwitz and the Toulouse school where Jewish children were gunned down in March 2012.

Anelka’s club initially sought to downplay the matter, but later agreed that the star striker had caused offence. “The club has asked Nicolas not to perform the gesture again,” read a statement. “Nicolas immediately agreed to adhere to this request.”

This did little to quell the growing anger at Anelka’s antics, however, as French Jewish community president Roger Cukierman said it was “an inverted Nazi salute”.

New to British audiences, it was popularised in Europe by controversial comedian Dieudonne, whose supporters describe him as “anti-establishment” but whose past record suggests something more sinister.

He is known for coining the phrase “shoananas,” a cross between “Shoah” and the French word for pineapple. Critics say it suggests the Holocaust was a myth but does so by bypassing French laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.

Dieudonne has had several convictions and fines, and last month attracted attention after mocking a Jewish journalist on radio, saying: “When I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I tell myself, you know, the gas chambers…Shame.”

On Facebook, his supporters raced to defend two French soldiers sanctioned for performing the gesture in uniform outside a Paris synagogue, but the comedian insists he is not anti-Semitic but “anti-Zionist”.

Observers scoff at the distinction, however, saying the sign is just another attempt to evade prosecution for hate crimes.

French Minister for Sport Valerie Fourneyron condemned it as “shocking” and “disgusting,” while former sports minister Chantal Jouanno said the quenelle was “a Nazi gesture, clearly anti-Semitic and known as such”.

He added: “It is not worth arguing about interpretation. We must be clear about our values. He must be punished.”

In the UK, the Board of Deputies said European Jews “were appalled” and called on the Football Association (FA) to investigate the matter urgently.

Simon Johnson, interim chief executive at the Jewish Leadership Council and a former director at the FA, echoed the call, saying that there was “a strong suspicion that this was an anti-Semitic gesture” and adding that the Jewish community could assist the inquiry by providing information.

The striker could face up to a ten match ban if found guilty. “If he is convicted, we expect the FA to apply the most severe sanction,” said Johnson. “Football is no place for racist or anti-Semitic gestures.”

But Anelka, who converted to Islam in 2004, said it was just a “special dedication to my friend”. He added: “I don’t know what religion has to do with this story… I am neither racist nor anti-Semitic.”

Moshe Kantor of the European Jewish Congress, however, dismissed the idea of ignorance, describing the quenelle as “merely a lesser known Nazi salute.”

He said: “It is sickening that a well-known footballer would make such an abusive and hateful gesture. Inverting the traditional Nazi salute should not allow anti-Semites to spread their hatred with impunity.”

Birmingham’s Jewish community president Sir Bernard Zissman said: “He didn’t do it just because the sun was shining – it was to ally himself with this anti-Semitic comedian. It’s offensive to the Jewish community in France, it’s insulting to us.”

He added: “Anelka seems to be from an ethnic minority, so he needs to learn what the Nazis were all about, because 70 years ago he could well have been in a concentration camp, rather than on a football field.”