On Wednesday evening Celtic hosted Manchester City in a frantic and pulsating Champions League tie. After a few years in the European doldrums, the game was evidence that the club were back mixing it with the best that the continent has to offer. Meanwhile, the cauldron-like atmosphere proved once again that there a few places quite like the east end of Glasgow on nights like these.
But it was something else that happened thousands of miles away that illustrated just how global a reach the game can have. The same day as the match in Glasgow, Pink Floyd icon Roger Waters was playing a concert at the Foro Sol arena in New Mexico. As he closed his set with the song Fearless, the screens behind projected images of a Palestine display at Celtic Park in the recent game Hapoel Be’er Sheva, a team from Israel.
The display was organised by the Green Brigade, a group of Celtic fans much maligned in the press. You’ll probably have heard of them before. They’re the people that the Scottish media likes to refer to as bampots, idiots and hooligans. Yet it’s no exaggeration to say that this was a show of solidarity that has reverberated positively around the globe, with the latest evidence of this in Mexico City the other night.
The display has led to a chain reaction in European football too. A week later St Etienne fans waved Palestinian flags in their Europa League tie against Beitar Jerusalem, while fans and activists staged a protest outside the stadium when Irish side Dundalk took on Maccabi Tel Aviv in Ireland on Thursday evening.
The action was even applauded by some politicians from the SNP which, it has to be said, is more than a tad hypocritical considering the party is the creator of a law which effectively criminalises political expression.
The day after the Roger Waters concert, UEFA decided to fine Celtic for the action claiming that the fans’ broke rules by flying an “illicit banner”. How a national flag can be viewed as illegal by European football’s governing body remains perplexing. Nevertheless, the response to the disciplinary proceedings led to a gesture arguably more powerful than the initial action.
When threats of a fine were reported, the Green Brigade launched the #MatchTheFineforPalestine campaign with the proceeds of the crowdfunder going towards good causes in the militarily occupied country. Not only did they succeed in matching the fine (£8,200), they raised more than twenty times it. At latest count the figure going towards Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Lajee Cultural Centre stood at a staggering £173,000. The cheques will be awarded to both charities outside Celtic Park at an upcoming game (unfortunately the club have refused permission for the ceremony to take place inside the stadium).
But what have we learned from this episode? Well, it’s clear that the “what’s waving a few flags going to do?” argument, made by many before the game, has been well and truly blown out the water. This is evident from the response from Palestinians which has warm and thankful. One message I received from a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon encapsulates the sentiment. It read “Celtic fans did not just raise a flag, they raised their voices, they raised awareness and most importantly they raised hope.”
The action also showed the worth in defying the football authorities. They are quick to emphasise that they want to keep politics out of football. But sometimes things are too important, too unjust to just turn a blind eye to. FIFA recognised this in 1960 when they banned apartheid South Africa from its association. They weren’t reinstated until the system of racial segregation fell 30 years later. There is a strong case to be made for similar action against Israel.
Nobody should need reminding of the gravity of the situation. The ethnic cleansing, occupation and repression of the Palestinian people has been going on for decades. The Gaza Strip remains an open air prison which every few years is flattened by aerial bombardment. Israel should not be treated like a normal state precisely because it does not behave like one.
The impunity of the country in football terms was put under the spotlight by a recent report by Human Rights Watch. The NGO has accused FIFA of supporting violations of human rights by allowing the Israel Football Association to play league games on occupied land in the West Bank.
Human Rights Watch has has called on FIFA to compel the IFA to move all official games to inside the internationally recognised borders of Israel. This latest development follows attempts made last year by the Palestinian Football Authority to have their Israeli counterparts banned from the organisation.
It is clear that Israel cannot act with impunity forever. But for the authorities to take action it needs pressure from below. When it comes to football, that means action from supporters on the terraces to show they won’t accept the status quo.
By refusing to bow to UEFA’s threats, the Green Brigade did exactly that. They showed courage and conviction by taking a stand against injustice regardless of the consequences. Let’s hope others continue to follow suit.