Kiran Emrich writes about the recent show of Palestine solidarity by Celtic fans and the hypocrisy of football’s governing bodies in dictating who fans and players can and cannot support.
On Wednesday 25th October we saw another awesome display of solidarity with the people of Palestine by Glasgow Celtic football fans. Thousands of fans displayed and waved Palestinian flags during their Champions League match against Atlético Madrid. This ongoing solidarity with Palestinians facing genocidal attack by Israeli forces comes despite appeals from the club for fans to desist as the club faces fines by the European football governing body UEFA. These fines show the hypocrisy of UEFA who ban Palestinian flags as a political symbol, saying that football and politics should not mix. This contrasts with the widespread gestures of support for Ukraine and shows that politics and football are allowed to mix only under certain conditions. It is also part of a wider trend around Europe to demonise and criminalise Palestinian solidarity even in the face of widespread support of people for the Palestinian cause.
The flag display was organised by the Green Brigade fans group who distributed flags to supporters as they entered the stadium. This follows on from Palestinian flags being displayed at Celtic’s recent Scottish league games. After a similar display in 2016 during a match against Israeli team Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the club was fined £9,000 by UEFA. The Green Brigade responded at the time with an online fundraiser that raised £130,000 for medical aid for Palestine and to create a football academy in Bethlehem.
While the Green Brigade helped organise these shows of solidarity, it is clear from the numbers at Celtic Park on Wednesday that the support for Palestine among Celtic fans is much bigger than just one fan group. However, the club has responded to recent events by banning the Green Brigade from away matches in a bid to stop such scenes from recurring. While there has been no news yet on a potential fine this time, this is just one of a series of incidents of note around Europe regarding Palestinian solidarity in football.
Crackdown on Footballers
Notably, two footballers have been punished by their clubs and football authorities for showing solidarity with Palestine. Dutch footballer, Anwar El Ghazi, who is of Moroccan descent, was dropped by his German club Mainz, less than a month after joining, after he shared a post on Instagram expressing solidarity with Palestine. The club objected to the Instagram post which included the line ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’, a common slogan and chant of the Palestinian cause but which Israel’s supporters claim is anti-semitic. El Ghazi later stated online that ‘Every individual, be it in Palestine or elsewhere, has the right to security, a loving home and opportunities to grow’. This utterly uncontroversial statement wasn’t enough for Mainz though, and they proceeded to sack El Ghazi on the 27th October. This appalling action by Mainz must be challenged by fans, players and player unions. At the very least it’s a case of illegal dismissal.
Another footballer, Algerian Youcef Atal of French club Nice was accused of defending terrorism for posting a video about Palestine on social media on 14th October. Despite immediately removing the post and later posting that he denounces all forms of violence, the Nice public prosecutor opened an investigation and he was suspended by his club. On 25th October the player received a seven-match ban by the French football authorities.
Both of these cases highlight a shocking overreach by authorities in punishing those who express solidarity with Palestinians.
Previously, Arsenal’s Egyptian footballer Mohamed Elneny was forced to withdraw social media posts supporting Palestine in 2021 after a sponsor, the Italian coffee company Lavazza demanded action. Arsenal also censored and dropped German footballer Mesut Özil for expressing solidarity with Uighurs who are being oppressed by China. The club were quick to act to avoid criticism from China.
Gross Double Standards
These incidents are in stark contrast to what happens to those who express solidarity with Israel or Ukraine. Arsenal footballer Olexander Zinchenko and Tottenham footballer Manor Solomon both received criticism from fans for expressing solidarity with Israel during the current bombing campaign on Gaza. But the clubs and authorities were silent and there was no widespread media attention or condemnation.
Despite protestations from footballing authorities that football and politics shouldn’t mix, many leagues and clubs chose to show solidarity with Israel with minutes of silence, wearing of black armbands and displaying of Israeli flags to remember those killed by Hamas, but no mention of the thousands more Palestinians killed by Israel.
This almost descended into farce in the run-up to an international game between England and Italy on the 17th October at Wembley Stadium in London. Numerous Tory politicians demanded that the football association (FA) light up the Wembley Stadium arch in the colours of the Israeli flag for the match as they had previously done for Ukraine last year. The FA resisted pressure from the government and decided instead to hold a minute’s silence at the start of the match which was then booed by fans as it only mentioned Israel and Sweden and made no mention of Palestine.
All of this follows over a year of solidarity being shown with Ukraine following the Russian invasion with the full support of footballing authorities. The European and global football authorities went even further by taking the unprecedented step to ban Russia and its clubs from all international competitions. In the history of football this has only happened once before, to Yugoslavia following the outbreak of war in 1992. To put this into context, even Nazi Germany was not banned – indeed they were allowed to host the 1936 Olympics. The decision to ban Russia begs the question, why only them? Why not Israel for its ongoing oppression and murder of Palestinians. Why not Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen. Why not the USA for Afghanistan and Iraq?
Footballing authorities cannot continue to say politics and football don’t mix and then pick and choose which politics can mix with football. Ultimately the power to change football and support real solidarity with oppressed peoples lies with the sports two largest stakeholders – fans and players. Footballers can have a voice, if enough of them speak out. Players like the Egyptian Mohamed Salah who has expressed solidarity with Palestinians have a role to play but there needs to be more. And player unions must be stronger in protecting players who do speak out. Meanwhile, fans can take inspiration from Celtic’s Green Brigade and show real solidarity with Palestinian people by resisting any attempts to suppress such solidarity.