“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
– George Orwell
It’s an inherently Scottish trait to tend towards pessimism; to look for the depraved in an otherwise gleaming ocean of positivity. Thus, after the Invincible Treble and credible Champions League performance from Celtic last year, it was only a matter of time before some kind of negative circus came to town to taint the optimistic mentality going into the new season. This indeed came and did so in the form of the usual suspects: Banners, The Green Brigade, UEFA, and apparent good taste.
We’ve been here before: After the UEFA Europa League match at home to Rennes in 2011, Celtic were fined £12,700 for “pro-IRA chanting”; in 2013, the club were fined £42,000 for a Green Brigade banner comparing IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands to Scottish historical figure William Wallace before a Champions League group match against AC Milan. Only last season, the club were fined £8615 for the waving of the “illicit” Palestine flags in their Champions League Play-Off against Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva. This recent history meant that anyone who spotted this most recent banner in the game against Linfield could instantly sense the gloomy spectre of the UEFA disciplinary department hovering on the horizon once more.
The banners have been circulating around social media for the last few weeks, generating a simplistic divide down the spine of the Celtic support. This has largely culminated in a final stand-off between the following perspectives: “Green Brigade are good. SHUT UP”, or “Green Brigade are bad. SHUT UP”.
It is understandable that people have different viewpoints on the Green Brigade. In a largely sanitized modern British football culture, there are few groups who bring this level of colour and passion to our football stadia. The spectacle of this can only be good for the club and for our game in general. There are others who take issue with the politics of the group, however this is often part and parcel with having an ‘ultras section’ (the clue is in the name), and has been the case for many ultras groups across Europe such as Barcelona’s history with the Boixos Nois group or the disparity between the Boys group and much of the AS Roma support. The Green Brigade are not unique in this regard. Nevertheless, you can agree or disagree with their politics all you like.
Or can you?
Are you allowed to?
The Green Brigade are not the villain of the piece here. Celtic themselves have handled the situation shockingly: from allegedly banning fans who were not involved at all, to releasing more statements than RBS. The club have made no effort to stand up for the fans at all. However, the crucial point is that all of this has been caused by external threat. Partially from the police (much has been made of the ludicrous Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, with progress being made towards its repeal – see fansagainstcriminalisation.com for more details). The other external influence is that aforementioned glooming spectre: UEFA.
UEFA operate a policy of strict liability for the clubs participating in its competitions; they may be punished for the behaviour of its supporters with regards to “the use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature.” That’ll be why they sanctioned on-field banners which read “Madiba, The World Will Never Forget” after the death of Nelson Mandela – a man frequently labelled a terrorist throughout the 1980s in Britain and still by some to this day. The UEFA support for Nelson Mandela and the ANC would have faced intense criticism from many parts of ‘the establishment’ had it occurred only a generation ago.
This highlights part of the problem with UEFA. They are a business with business interests. Like any business they want a sanitised, sterile environment in which they can please – or specifically, not anger – their sponsors and reap the financial rewards. This leads from a culture we have as a morally deficient society. Subconsciously, we know we cannot be truly moral; society as a whole largely ignore the plight of refugees and allow people to sleep on our streets and go hungry. Thus, we have to plug this deficit with something and that is where the concept of ‘good taste’ comes in.
Outrage over taboo political statements and jokes comedians make allow us to feel better about ourselves; to shake our heads and say “tsk tsk, isn’t that awful”. It is this outrage of denial which scares corporations and sponsors. The idea of being shamed for allowing anything beyond what is considered reasonable has scared UEFA into forcing these rules upon supporters.
But can UEFA tell us what we can and cannot say when our clubs play in their tournaments?
One could pose the frequently wheeled out argument that politics does not belong in sport: “sport and politics are separate entities – sport is for the field and politics is for Question Time and the Commons”. Try explaining that to Tommy Smith and John Carlos who performed the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics; or to the fans of FC Barcelona whose Catalan culture came under assault during the time of the Spanish Civil War, with the Camp Nou being one of the few public refuges for preserving Catalan culture; or to the fans of Liverpool FC and their long-standing struggle against an establishment that failed them at and in the wake of the Hillsborough Disaster; or indeed to the fans of Celtic, who frequently fly the Irish tricolour as a symbol of their strong historical connection with Ireland, and many of the social struggles that came with being Irish in the West of Scotland.
Politics is part of the lifeblood of sport, as it is in everything. You wouldn’t tell Ken Loach to stop making films which deal with political issues, or Bob Dylan that “The Times They Are a-Changin’” should be banned. Similarly, why should UEFA stop football fans from expressing their political views? Even worse, why should UEFA only stop fans expressing views they don’t align themselves with out of ‘good taste’. As illustrated by the Mandela banner, it is only when they don’t agree that they step in.
Another argument peddled on social media is “well, UEFA make the rules. If we want to play in their competition, we have to obey their rules”. Wait a minute. Okay, maybe so, for now. They have these rules in place and if we want to stop being fined and charged and potentially banned then perhaps we do play by the rules – or at least make it hard for them to come down hard on us. But since when is that how society works?
I’m having a house party next week. I know it’s against the law to have illegal substances and to maybe murder one or two people for a bit of fun. But hey, it’s my house! I make the rules! Or: the local primary school are having an egg and spoon race. But instead of an egg and spoon, it’s a grenade and an AK47. But hey, it’s their competition! They make the rules!
The law is the law everywhere, and private property or competition is irrelevant. See the Scottish smoking ban or basically any other law for example. As dictated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, we all have a human right to freedom of speech and expression. If freedom of speech is something we hold dear, then we hold it dear everywhere. If I want to, I can go to a rugby match and sing all the Irish Republican songs I want. But if I go to a football match in Europe, my club will be pressured into banning me.
UEFA do not decide my morality. They do not decide my politics. Yes, these are the rules for now, but the rules are sometimes wrong. If football fans care about their freedom of expression, and if they care about their frequent treatment as being too stupid, too boorish, and too working-class to know how to behave themselves, then they will stand up against this ridiculous treatment.
I’d even pose the suggestion that this would hardly have been discussed if it were not for UEFA’s well known rulebook and enthusiasm for punishment. Bans and censorship don’t work. They encourage an undergrowth of tension and extremism. If you begin to ban people for the things they say, then do not be surprised if one day people find what you say to be offensive, and ban you from saying what you think.
Sometimes this means people waving banners you find disgusting. Sometimes this means people expressing some of what you may consider to be the worst aspects of humanity. But if someone expresses a viewpoint you profoundly disagree with, then argue back. Create a discourse. Argue them down or at least convince others that their view is incorrect or indeed abhorrent. That is the beauty of free speech.
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”
– Evelyn Beatrice Hall