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.