The life of a committed football supporter in the UK could never be mistaken for a bowl of cherries. Since that first day, long in the planning, when his mother or father decided finally to inaugurate him into the sacred mysteries he has been condemned to be viewed with suspicion, fear and loathing by the government, civic authorities and the men who actually run the game.
Each of these estates has benefited greatly in the decades since the first rules of association football were drawn up. There is national prestige, free foreign travel with first-class accommodation and the opportunity to take a wee “clip” now and then when success causes its light to shine upon them all. None of them ever really experiences that peculiar numbness that comes with defeat for they only ever follow the money and the glory.
In those spaces between the big matches where global fame and marketing opportunities are at stake these three estates seem to spend their time either giving football supporters a right good kicking or dreaming up new ways of doing so. In their fantasy world, football success and the prestige that comes with it can be achieved without having to share it with the scum punters.
No one ought to be surprised by this. The state and its attendant offices have never been comfortable when large groups of mainly working-class men gather together in a common purpose. When you add alcohol and political fervour into the mix the result can sometimes be a little too saucy for the governors.
Games, along with military adventures and royal fecundity, have remained the favoured way of keeping the minds and bodies of the punters occupied while they are being cheated and exploited. But this football malarkey and the sheer numbers of its adherents, well… we must always keep an eye on them.
To civic Scotland and Holyrood, football supporters are regarded as occupying a position somewhere just above drug-pushers and just below crime lords: you can do business with organised crime but you can’t do business with football supporters. They are unpredictable and are driven by strange currents and deep emotions that a politician will never understand. Even after decades of being overcharged and made to watch the game in gulags these football fans remain true to their club.
So it was surely a welcome development when a group of Celtic fans deployed crowd-funding to raise money for two respected relief organisations operating in Palestine. When it was announced that Celtic would play the Israeli champions, Hapoel Be’er Sheva, in a Champions League play-off match, some of their fans wanted to use the game as an opportunity to make a small and peaceful protest about the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinian people living in the West Bank.
So around 100 Celtic fans in a crowd of 60,000 waved Palestinian flags at the game in a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. They knew the game would be beamed live around the world and they simply wanted to communicate to an oppressed people that, in a small corner of Glasgow, they were not forgotten. The Israeli players were treated respectfully throughout, as was Celtic’s midfielder and Israeli international player Nir Bitton, who was given a standing ovation when he left the field.
Uefa, the organisation that runs European football, has deemed the Palestinian flag to be an “illicit banner” when it is waved at a football match and has begun disciplinary proceedings against Celtic. This will probably end in a fine approaching six figures as there have been several previous instances of unwarranted political behaviour by Celtic fans.
These supporters launched a #matchthefineforpalestine campaignto raise funds for two relief charities operating in the West Bank. Their reasons for doing so were eloquently expressed in a GoFundMe page. In this, they stated their aim of raising £75k to match any Uefa fine and then distribute it to the two nominated charities. At the time of writing they are comfortably past the £200k mark and will be approaching £500k by the time of the Uefa hearing on 22 September.
During the fascist regime of General Franco in Spain, to display the Catalan flag was to risk death or imprisonment. The only place where the Catalans could safely fly these fags was Barcelona’s Nou Camp stadium. Barcelona FC now embodies Catalan identity and pride. Wherever there is oppression in the world, football, by its very nature, can provide a vehicle for expressing pride in a national cause. It was never only ever about football.
Celtic supporters know this too. Their club was founded in 1887 and played its first game in 1888 to raise funds for the relief of the poor Irish who had gathered in the East End of Glasgow. When they arrived in the city they initially faced resentment, discrimination and squalor. Every time Celtic won a game their suffering was eased a little.
In Scotland, those days are long departed. In Palestine, though, another oppressed people is suffering. Perhaps now because of a simple act of solidarity and generosity, they will know that they don’t suffer alone.