Friday, 26 August 2016

The voice of the unheard

The voice of the unheard

Harold Wilson the former UK Prime Minister is credited with using the term; ‘a week is a long time in Politics.’ It’s also true that much can happen in the football world in 7 days. Last weekend we saw Celtic defeat St Johnstone in a display which was in parts exciting and encouraging for the future. On Tuesday the side faced up to Hapoel Beer Sheba in the heat of the Negev desert to book a place in the Group stages of the Champions League. Not since that torturous night in Oporto when Henrik Larsson booked Celtic’s place in Seville have I been so stressed watching a game of football. Celtic simply failed to find any fluency and found themselves 2-0 down with over 30 minutes left to play. It may be churlish to suggest that the Celtic of a year back would perhaps have lost that tie but Celtic this season are made of sterner stuff. The manager once again intervened and brought on Sviatchenko to stiffen his defence and in truth Hapoel seemed to run out of ideas in the final 20 minutes.

So it was that Celtic qualified for the lucrative Group stages of the Champions League. Our home performance, two silly goals apart, was accomplished and allowed us some leeway in the return leg. Of course the gossip in the media was all about the likely sanctions UEFA would impose for the displaying of scores of Palestinian flags in the stadium. The display was not limited to the Green Brigade section although it was more pronounced there. It seemed as if the supporters who wanted to make a point had done so in a peaceful if very public manner and cost the club another few quid. Then something remarkable happened. The Green Brigade decided to raise money for two Palestinian charities with an initial target of £15,000. They stated on the crowd funding page…

We, the Green Brigade, are the passionate Ultra fans of Celtic Football Club, Scotland’s most famous and successful football team. At the Champions League match with Hapoel Beer Sheva on 17 August 2016, the Green Brigade and fans throughout Celtic Park flew the flag for Palestine. This act of solidarity has earned our club respect and acclaim throughout the world. It has also attracted a disciplinary charge from UEFA, which deems the Palestinian flag to be an ‘illicit banner’ In response to this petty and politically partisan act by European football’s governing body, we are determined to make a positive contribution to the game and today launch a campaign to ‘match the fine for Palestine.’ We aim to raise £15,000 which will be split equally between Medical Aid Palestine (MAP) and the Lajee Centre, a Palestinian cultural centre in Aida Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. From our members’ experiences as volunteers in Palestine we know the huge importance of both organisations’ work and have developed close contacts with them. MAP is a UK-based charity which delivers health and medical care to Palestinians worst affected by conflict, occupation and displacement. Working in partnership with local health care providers and hospitals, MAP provides vital public health and emergency response services. This includes training and funding a team of Palestinian surgeons and medics to treat and operate on those affected by the recent conflict in the Gaza Strip.

Celtic charitable roots are reflected in such laudable intentions and some also argue with no little justification that the Green Brigade also pulled of a supreme piece of political manoeuvring. Showing up UEFA and their contradictory and selective ideas on what actually constitutes ‘political’ displays at football. It did not go un-noticed that the draw for the Champions’ League group stages kept certain teams apart for political reasons. Celtic themselves have said virtually nothing on the display of Palestinian flags beyond a statement telling us they have been notified by UEFA that disciplinary proceeding are going ahead.

Few however could have predicted the world wide response to the Green Brigade’s ‘match the fine for Palestine’ appeal. The initial target of £15,000 has been superseded tenfold and at the time of writing £152,298 has been pledged. This astonishing amount of money has been raised from around the world with the Celtic support leading the way. The comments on the page reflect an admiration for the Celtic support doing something positive for those in need and highlighting the double standards adopted by UEFA. Of course some elements of the mediocre media we have here in Scotland tried to find an angle which attempts to take the shine off of what is an incredible example of ordinary fans taking positive and direct action.   The Scottish Sun, never noted for quality journalism, printed an obnoxious and frankly pathetic headline which stated: ‘'Celtic fans should make sure they're not raising money for terrorists.' Despite the Green Brigade’s Just Giving page being very clear on where the money raised was going this comic still found a way to throw mud but they are in the minority and football supporters (and many who don’t follow the game) from around the globe have congratulated the Celtic supporters for their humanity.

The fundraising has been highlighted in newspapers and news reports around the world and to my mind demonstrates the power of the internet when it is used positively. The ability to spread information and images around the world at the flick of a button or the click of a mouse has revolutionised communication. It also made it possible for people from scores of countries to become aware of the appeal and donate. The days of rags like the Sun virtually controlling the news agenda are long gone and we should all rejoice in that.

The words you will read in the comments section of the just giving page come from people from Australia to Aberdeen, from Lebanon to London, from Parkhead to Pakistan and from Liverpool to Lisbon. . The comments come from people with names like Anwar and Andy, Padraig and Pietro, Sean and Shafiq, Lynn and Latifah.  Here is a sample of what people are saying….

‘Thank you so much for your support. You are now my team.'

‘You have our support. One day apartheid in Palestine will end. From Benfica supporters.

‘The Scottish enlightenment continues! Well done’

‘Blue nose but happy to join fellow supporters to support the dispossessed. Well done everyone.’

‘Football can be the voice of the unheard; it’s the only moral left in the game. Be strong!’

‘I don’t even like soccer but colour me green because you’ve got a new fan.’

‘Thank you Celtic Fc and Green Brigade! You have a new fan for life.’

‘This is not about football. It’s about people like you and I. They say don’t hold a flag during an event the world is watching. I wonder why?’

‘This is solidarity, It’s integrity. It’s what you ask from your fans. Well done Celtic.’

I could go on and on with such comments but you’ll have gathered by now that the actions of the Green Brigade have touched a chord among many people. Modern football so often driven by greed and avarice has alienated many traditional working class supporters. But in this instance ordinary people have demonstrated that many followers of the game still use it as a vehicle for positive action. The raising of over £150,000 for charity by the Green Brigade is an astonishing and positive achievement. It is far more effective than any empty gesture politics at sending out a signal to people less fortunate that many do see their plight and do care. 

I was a little sceptical about displaying Palestine flags at the Hapoel game thinking it might harm the club I hold dear but some things are more important than sanctions of fines. This wonderful act of charitable giving has demonstrated yet again that Celtic fans can be a force for good in the game.

I’ve never been prouder of my fellow Celtic fans. Hail Hail to you all.

Friday, 19 August 2016

No regrets

No regrets

Wednesday night’s match against Hapoel Beer Sheva at Celtic Park was one of those pulsating games which make you glad you’re Celtic fan. After some fairly inept and flaccid performances in Europe during the Ronny years it was great to see the team flying out of the blocks, a support backing them to the hilt and a Manager with the cojones to change things when the side had a wobble early in the second half. The tie is far from over but there is a verve and pace about Celtic’s play which bodes well for the season ahead. It’s hard to think of a player who didn’t contribute to a solid and in the end convincing victory. Walking out of the stadium there was a buzz, a feeling that something good was finally happening at Celtic after years of down-sizing and cost cutting. One fan I spoke to said it was like the beginning of the O’Neil years.

Football is a cyclical game in the sense that every few years there needs to be change, a new beginning at a club. Celtic has laboured in Europe in recent years and in truth the fans know success in Scotland alone is never totally satisfying. Of course, we don’t expect to win the Champions League but we should expect to field a side which at least competes against clubs of similar stature. Too often we have lost to sides with a fraction of our resources and that needs to change. The arrival of Brendan Rodgers indicates a more ambitious approach from Celtic. A manager of his stature wouldn’t have taken the job without assurances that he would be able to mould the squad into a more effective unit. That costs money and the arrival of Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure suggests Celtic will now spend reasonable money. Sinclair cost around £3.5m and while Kolo came on a free transfer, both players will be on wages suitable for players who have played in the English Premiership. Rodgers was undoubtedly one of the main reasons they came north and the contacts and reputation he has in the games will serve Celtic well. With others such Mousa Dembele and Dorus De Vries adding to a squad that already had some talented players then there is genuine optimism that Celtic are on the up. In the wake of the 5-2 victory over Hapoel, Rodgers stated when asked if he was planning to sign another quality player…

‘Always with the club it’ll be about affordability and availability but certainly the club has shown thus far that they are prepared to back what it is I want to do,  the types of players that we want to bring in and I’m sure this one will be no different.’

He is undoubtedly a man who knows where he wants to take Celtic and has embraced the club with the affection of a fan and the dedication of a manager who knows the score. Rodgers has so far shown he is exactly what Celtic needed to reignite the support and mould a team worthy of Celtic’s traditions.

As I looked around Celtic Park on Wednesday evening there was that old, familiar atmosphere. The stadium fairly rocked as the Celtic songs boomed out. There is no doubt that the noise had an effect on the Hapoel players as their manager admitted. He said post-match that he ‘had never heard such a noise in a football stadium.’ Rodgers himself said that the support were Celtic’s twelfth man. That wonderful backing of the team is one of the distinguishing features of Celtic in Europe. Success in Europe is so important to the supporters that they give their all and go home exhausted after big games. The Champions League is tantalisingly close but Rodgers is long enough in the tooth to know the job is only half finished.

The many Palestinian flags on display during the game have led to UEFA opening disciplinary proceedings against Celtic. It also opens up to clear view the chasm of hypocrisy which goes on at football with regards to ‘political’ displays. Games in UEFA sanctioned competitions must follow their rules and the key words in the rule book frown upon…

‘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 in nature.’

Yet we see fines for Barcelona over the flying of Catalan flags by their supporters while simultaneously the Israeli flags at Ajax are routinely ignored.  We see clubs such as Celtic, Dundalk, St Johnstone and Omonoia (Cyprus) being fined for supporters displaying Palestinian flags as they are deemed political yet UEFA encouraged the showing of banners marking the passing of Nelson Mandela. The great man was considered a freedom fighter by some and a terrorist to others at points in his life before eventually becoming a politician and President of South Africa. It was as if the prevailing opinion that as he was fighting apartheid this allows this expression of sympathy at his passing to go ahead at football games. Some would doubtless argue, with some justification, that the Palestinian people are also fighting an unjust system which has oppressed and dispossessed them for decades.

No one is suggesting a free for all regarding flags at UEFA controlled games as this would probably get out of hand given the lunatic fringe which attaches itself to some clubs, most notably in Eastern Europe. However the ruling body should be seen to be above reproach and applying the rules without fear or favour.

UEFA allows its member Associations discretion to police what goes on in domestic games and here in Scotland we’ve seen our share of political controversy. The Green Brigade’s Bobby Sands and William Wallace display was designed to show that our societies wilfully promote some political or historic figures which discouraging or even banning others. The annual fuss over wearing a poppy is another political intrusion into sport as is the god awful tacky goings on at Ibrox on armed forces day. Firing guns and abseiling down stands is hardly a sombre act of remembrance. Nor is the singing of bigoted songs during these jamborees. You cannot have it both ways, either sport is kept out of the political arena or it isn’t.

Many feel strongly that the west and the media here have their own agenda and allowing the Palestinians a voice is seldom part of it. From around the globe though there were messages of thanks from Palestinian groups who had witnessed the events at Celtic Park. Whether you think the flag display was noble or (in the words of journalist, Tom English) ‘idiotic,’ it can’t be denied that many saw this non-violent act of defiance as a welcome gesture of solidarity with a suffering people.

UEFA may well fine the club again but for those who took part in the display, there are no regrets.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Light in a dark place

Light in a dark place

When the draw for the European Cup was made in 1968 it paired Celtic with Hungarian side Ferencvaros. Celtic Chairman Bob Kelly was perturbed as Hungarian Troops had been among the Warsaw Pact forces which invaded Czechoslovakia that summer to crush the ‘Prague spring’ which had seen the Czechs demand a more liberal future less dominated by the USSR. 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops and 2000 tanks entered the country to crush the Czechs. 72 citizens were killed and hundreds wounded by the invading forces. Bob Kelly, a man of principle, sent a telegram to UEFA stating that the European Cup draw should be redone or Celtic would withdraw from the tournament. Kelly was adamant that sport could not simply ignore such brutal suppression. He would well remember the similar occupation of Hungary in 1956 when the sporting world said and did nothing in support of the Hungarians. UEFA for once agreed with him and the draw was remade keeping teams from the west and the Soviet Block apart.  Several Soviet Block countries withdrew from the tournament, it seemed they had at least heard the message Kelly was sending out. Kelly received a Knighthood a year later and some suggested his principled stand and honesty went part of the way to securing it.

It wasn’t the first time Kelly had stuck to his principles when he saw an injustice being done. The great ‘flag flutter’ of the early 1950s saw Kelly take on clique in the SFA who had no love for Celtic. After trouble at an Old Firm game they insisted Celtic remove the Irish flag which flew above the old Jungle. Glasgow Magistrates had asked the football authorities to ban flags which might have a provocative effect on supporters of both teams. The cabal at the SFA saw this as a chance to get rid of that symbol of Celtic’s Irish heritage, the tricolour. The SFA Council voted 26-7 that Celtic should remove the flag or face suspension. Kelly was having none of it. No doubt he was well aware of the forces that had ended Belfast Celtic’s involvement in football just a few years earlier.‘Tell me which rule we have breached?’ he asked them furiously. In the end they crumbled and Kelly was vindicated. The flag remained. Years later Desmond White commented on the leader of the clique at the SFA, Secretary George Graham, with the withering words...’ He’ll roast in hell for what he tried to do to Celtic.’

Bob Kelly’s insistence that sport cannot be blind to breaches of human rights or international politics was in keeping with his humanitarian principles. Almost 50 years have passed since he asked UEFA to redraw the European Cup or Celtic would withdraw. One wonders what he would make of the current discussion going on among sections of the Celtic support about the upcoming tie with Hapoel Beer Sheva. The Israeli city of Beer Sheva sits in the Negev Desert just 26 miles from the Gaza strip, scene of such horrendous slaughter during the IDF offensive of 2014. There is undoubtedly a well of sympathy among some Celtic supporters for the people of Palestine although some have only the shallowest understanding of the complexities of Arab-Israeli history. Few conflicts are as simple as saying one side is bad and the other good. That sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people perhaps has its roots in the Irish dimension of the Celtic supports’ DNA which has a long tradition or remembering historical repression in Ireland. The debate occurring online seems to be about how those Celtic supporters who intend to mark the visit of Hapoel should do so. Some suggest the flying of Palestinian flags would show sympathy and support for that suffering people. Others say UEFA would hammer Celtic for this and that as the club has an increasing record of such incidents among the support, there may well be sterner action than another fine. Others suggest ‘lighting up’ the stadium with their mobile phones on the 67th minute; 1967 being the year of the war during which the Israeli’s occupied much of Palestine.

One wonders what Bob Kelly would make of it all? The modern board would undoubtedly like the support to show up and give the team the fabulous backing they’re famous for and leave the politics at home. The world has undoubtedly changed since Bob Kelly asked UEFA to reconsider the 1968 draw. The Cold War context Celtic operated in then was certainly a factor in UEFA’s decision and in more recent times the ruling body has been coming down hard on political displays at football. Of course there is an element of hypocrisy in UEFA and FIFA’s sanctimonious posturing on keeping sport and politics apart as recent corruption scandals have shown. Ruling bodies who pontificate on what is acceptable should be above reproach themselves.

The issue of Israeli teams playing in European tournaments has led to protests in the past. Even friendly games such as that between FC Lille of France and Maccabi Haiffa in the wake of the Gaza slaughter in 2014 led to pro-Palestinian protestors invading the field and assaulting Maccabi players. That was of course totally unacceptable and achieved little. Footballers are not responsible for the policies of their government nor the actions of their country’s military. It is of course impossible to totally separate sport and politics but more subtlety is required when making a point.

One scene from the conflict in Gaza which is seared in my mind is the image of four children playing football on the beach moments before an Israeli gun boat fired a shell at them and killed them for no apparent reason other than the fact they were Palestinians. They became yet more statistics in that bloody summer of 2014 but for those who knew them they were friends, schoolmates, sons, children who died playing the sport sometimes called ‘the beautiful game.’ Jon Snow of Channel 4 news asked the Israeli Spokesman in the wake of this atrocity a question he struggled to answer…

‘The operation you’re engaged in is ‘Protective edge’ and its stated purpose is to protect Israeli civilians. How does killing children on a beach contribute to that purpose?’

Wednesday’s match with Hopeol Beer Sheva is above all a sporting contest which holds the prospect of a return to the Champions League for Celtic if we prevail. Should anyone choose to make a political point I would ask that it stays within the bounds of decency and the law. I am attracted to the idea of lighting up the stadium using mobile phones as the symbolism of light is powerful. It shines into dark places but it is also a sign of hope that the darkness of war and oppression needn’t last forever.

The four boys lost playing the game we love on that beach in Gaza were called; Ismail Mohammad Bakir, Mohammad Ramiz Bakir, Ahed Atif Bakir and Zakaria Ahed Bakir. Remember them and all the lost children of Gaza with dignity and respect.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Badge kissers, bead rattlers and WGS

Badge kissers, bead rattlers and WGS

Celtic Chairman, Brian Quinn attended a rather gloomy meal with Martin O’Neil and others in the aftermath Celtic’s narrow loss to FC Porto in the UEFA Cup Final of 2003. The Board had tried very hard to fund Martin O’Neil’s dreams of building a Celtic side which did justice to the magnificent support the club could boast and the excellent stadium the team played in.  There is no doubt that O’Neil’s side was perhaps the best Celtic team since the Stein era but in the limiting financial world of Scottish football it was expensive to bring players of quality to the SPL. Quinn noted Martin O’Neil’s incredulity when he told him that the 2002-03 Season would see Celtic lose around £7m. O’Neil was stunned, ‘You mean we’ve made it to the UEFA Cup final and we’re still losing money?’ he asked Quinn. The Grey haired Chairman told him that the wage bill was the root of these loses and while it was a collective responsibility that it had gotten so high, it was now their duty as custodians of the club to try and live within their means. During Martin O’Neil’s 5 seasons with Celtic the combined loses were around £50m and that was simply unsustainable. The fact the club were committed to rebalancing the books in this era would see the days of spending £6m on players as happened with Sutton and Lennon in the past. Martin O’Neil left in May of 2005 after losing the title in agonising manner at Fir Park. A Cup win the following week was little consolation to the Manager or the fans who knew that sloppiness had thrown the title away in those last few games. A fine 2-1 win at Ibrox was followed by a 3-1 home defeat by Hibs and the jitters set in. The last few moments of the SPL season saw Scott McDonald punish Celtic for not nailing down a title they really should have won. Change was in the air and the Celtic support wondered who would lead the team through the challenges ahead.

So it was that Gordon Strachan took the helm at Celtic Park in 2005 and in truth the support greeted him with mixed reactions. Some recalling his playing days at Aberdeen when he was a fierce competitor and occasional tormentor of Celtic, waited to be convinced that he was the right man for the job. Nor was Strachan the type to curry favour with the support by giving any soundbites to the media he didn’t think were 100% true. His straight talking style irked some but was in equal measure refreshing to others. He said once…

‘You hear Managers say they can relate to the fans. That’s bollocks! I don’t know what it’s like to work all week in the pissing rain or down a mine or in a factory that’s crap. When they spend money to watch a bad team, well I’m sorry I don’t know what that’s like. I wouldn’t start that nonsense- ‘I’ve always loved this team-’ because I didnae, I was a Hibs fan till I was 14 and that’s it.’

Such a forthright approach was always entertaining but many sensing that cost cutting was in the air wondered what Strachan would be able to do with a diminishing quality of player and far less money to remould the squad than O’Neil had at his disposal. His opening match away to Artmedia Bratislava was an utter disaster as the players performed dreadfully and Celtic lost 5-0. The following week in a bizarre game at Fir Park they drew 4-4. Few if any Managers in Celtic’s long history could boast they had shipped 9 goals in their first 2 games! Despite this Strachan moulded an efficient side which won the SPL and League Cup. He brought in players such as Boruc, Zurawski, Nakamura and even an ageing Roy Keane. Passing them on the way out the door were stalwarts of the O’Neil era like Sutton, Agathe, Valgaeren, McNamara and Lambert. It could be argued that as the wage bill came down the quality of the squad also fell. However as Rangers continued to spend way beyond their means and dabble in tax avoidance schemes, history shows that Celtic had made the right financial decisions in that era. The stock market crash of 2008 led to a financial crisis of the type unseen since the 1930s and clubs with big debts began to feel the heat.

Gordon Strachan won 3 titles, 2 League Cups and 1 Scottish Cup in his 4 seasons at Celtic. By any measure this would be considered a successful spell in charge. He also led Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League on two occasions and his sides defeated teams of calibre such as Benfica, Manchester United, AC Milan and Villarreal. To do this at a time of cost cutting was no mean feat and if the football wasn’t as free flowing as it had been under O’Neil at times at least it was successful. Despite Strachan’s success some supporters were vocal in their disapproval of the style of play he was adopting. It wasn’t the ‘Celtic way’ of playing some suggested and some in the media suggested Celtic fans were ‘spoiled’ and ungrateful. In one scurrilous article in the Herald Celtic fans were taken to task for their lack of appreciation of Strachan and the job he was doing at Celtic Park. However the reporter in question went too far when he suggested…

‘He was handicapped from the outset by not being Martin O’Neil, his predecessor but when he started to respond to criticism with a snarl and an evasive shrug they just made up their minds that he’s not Celtic class, whatever that means. Some fans would probably rather have a bead rattling Hoopy the Huddle hound than Strachan.’

Such reporting is at best attention seeking and at worst stereotyping nonsense. Strachan’s unpopularity with a minority was rooted in the perceived quality of play and his often sarcastic and cutting style in interviews. It is fair to say that Celtic, in common with all big clubs,  have among their support an element who never seem to be satisfied but to suggest any criticism of Strachan was linked to his background is nonsense. Fans can argue about the quality of play but what is a matter of record is the fact that Gordon Strachan led Celtic to considerable success at home and in Europe at a time of cost cutting and down-sizing.  That was no mean achievement. Yes, there were defeats which hurt or occasionally embarrassed the supporters during his tenure (Artmedia and Clyde come to mind) but there were memorable nights in Europe too and many of us would dearly like to taste those occasions again.

Strachan’s title successes showed that he could instil a pattern to the team’s play and add some fighting spirit. Many had given up on the title in 2008 when he pushed the side to an unexpected and memorable triumph in the wake of Tommy Burns’ death. The playing resources he had to work with were undoubtedly less strong than in previous years and he was pragmatic about the way he set his teams out to play. There was no Larsson to lead the line, no Moravcik to open the opposition defences and no Mjallby marshalling the defence, Strachan dealt with the daily realities of trying to build a team with less gifted players and maintain some modicum of success in in Scotland and in Europe. The records show that he succeeded.

Often we see things more clearly in retrospect and this is true in the passionate and heated world of football. Strachan was a successful Celtic Manager by any measure and brought honours to the club at home and gave the support some good nights in Europe too. All of this was done at a time of financial difficulty for the club. I found his honesty refreshing at times and one quote sums this up perfectly…

‘I couldn’t be turning around kissing badges- that just wasn’t me. I see players kissing badges, saying ‘I love you’ and then I see them sneaking out the door instead of signing autographs for people who have been standing outside for an hour.’’

What you saw was what you got from wee Gordon and he’d seldom sugar coat his opinions. Today he talks up Celtic during his TV work and shows that the club made a lasting impact on his life. He said with typical honesty at the time of his leaving in 2009…

"I wasn't going to pretend I came here as a Celtic supporter. I don't believe in kissing badges to get your support. I didn't know the words of Athenry. But I now know what it's like to be a Celtic supporter, because I am one now."