• Tue. Nov 28th, 2023

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Explained: Celtic fans and their support for Palestinians

There are just a few minutes to go until the start and the queue to get in is a tide of frustratingly slow-moving expectancy.

People want to be inside, but not just for the main event. Something else is happening tonight.

Look closer at the mass of dark jackets and scarves of green and white and you can see other colours sporadically being brandished. More green and white, yes, but mixed with red and black too…the Palestinian flag.

One man has a Palestinian scarf tied around his wrist, another is carrying a few laminated cards of the same flag — he hands some out to others in the queue.

Within the venue, this scene will be repeated thousands of times over, and at one point just before the game starts a sizeable proportion of the 55,000 in attendance will unite by showing their support for Palestinians, waving flags and banners.

It will follow a similar show in the hours after Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7, which caused more than 1,000 deaths.

“The banners the other week went too far but it’s not just slogans and flags, their support for Palestinians has substance,” says one man.

Another says: “I just feel like a lot of people have absolutely no idea of the context of what’s happening out there or the offence that can be caused if support for Palestine is in any way misconstrued as support for Hamas. It’s a very complicated subject.”

“At a time of loss and suffering for many, it is entirely inappropriate for any group of individuals to use Celtic Park as a vehicle for such messages,” said the club involved.

Because this is a football match. A football match happening in Scotland.

To understand the very public support of many Celtic fans for Palestinians is to understand the Scottish club itself.

Supporters are overwhelmingly deemed as left wing, and many view themselves as the immigrant club, so therefore are pro-immigration, pro-refugee and have been pro-Palestinian for several years.

Celtic were founded by Irish Catholic immigrants in Glasgow to raise money for poor families and their fans have long had ties with social and political causes.

The links with the Republic of Ireland remain strong 136 years after the club’s formation, and Ireland is a country which has what some might call a natural affinity with Palestinians (there is also strong support for the Palestinian people among republicans in Northern Ireland).

It is common to see Palestinian flags at football matches in Ireland (not just association football/soccer games, but Gaelic football too), including at the Republic of Ireland’s most recent home fixture, against Greece in Dublin the week after the Hamas attacks. One of the most prominent clubs in Ireland, Dublin-based Bohemians, even have an away kit which is referring to as their “Palestine away jersey”.

Celtic fans during the game against Hearts last weekend (Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)

This is what feeds into Celtic, whose supporters are so often united with movements and beliefs from across the Irish Sea.

It is not just flag-waving, especially when it comes to the vocal ultras of the Green Brigade, a hardcore and controversial supporter group who are based in the North Curve corner section at Celtic Park.

The Green Brigade’s history does not stretch back too far (they formed in 2006, initially with the goal of improving the atmosphere at home and away games) but it has generated numerous headlines for its antics — often contentious, never bland.

In the past, members of the group have displayed pro-IRA T-shirts or banners or sung pro-IRA chants, leading to charges from UEFA, European football’s governing body.

A decade ago, a banner (“The terrorist or the dreamer? The savage or the brave?”) which compared William Wallace, a leader during the First War of Scottish Independence in the 13th century, and Bobby Sands, an IRA member who died on hunger strike in prison in 1981, drew criticism from then Celtic manager and former Northern Ireland international Neil Lennon.

He said: “It knocked the stuffing out of me for about five or 10 minutes. When I saw it, my heart sank. I think it affected the atmosphere in the stadium. I think there was a lot of head-scratching from other quarters of the stadium.”

Lennon had previously called the group “embarrassing” for its anti-UEFA banners.

Numerous protests have taken place over the years over Celtic teams wearing poppies on their match shirts, with some fans viewing it as a celebration of the British Army.

In 2020, the group took to the streets of Glasgow to add alternate street names to roads which had been named after wealthy Scots who owned plantations overseas, instead plastering names such as Rosa Parks, Joseph Knight and George Floyd in the wake of the latter’s death, saying they were “celebrating those who fought against slavery”.

The Green Brigade is known for its anti-monarchy stanch and after Queen Elizabeth II’s death last year a banner in their section of Celtic’s stadium read: “F**k the crown”.

Just hours after Hamas’ attack this month, a Green Brigade banner at Celtic’s home match against Kilmarnock read: “Victory to the resistance”. Another said, “Free Palestine”.

While Palestinian flags have regularly been waved or displayed at Celtic matches over the years, those banners and the timing of them generated anger.

Nir Bitton, an Israeli who played for the club from 2013-22, posted on social media: “Shame on you! Yes, free Gaza from Hamas, not from Israel!

“Supporting a terror organisation who’s proudly celebrating the slaughtering of families is absolutely crazy! Embarrassing.

“Most of you don’t even know where Israel is! You have zero clue about this conflict and you still act like you know everything.

“Stop being brainwashed and biased and educate yourself with facts!”

Celtic have an Israeli player in their squad now too — 22-year-old winger Liel Abada, who is sidelined through injury. Abada has been urged to quit the club by international team-mate Dolev Haziza since the Hamas attacks.

First-team manager Brendan Rodgers said of Abada recently: “Naturally he is saddened, like us all, by what is happening. It’s a really divisive subject in terms of what is happening. But, in terms of him, he knows he has the support of every true Celtic supporter.”

Israeli Liel Abada, who plays for Celtic (Steve Welsh/Getty Images)

Celtic also have a small number of Jewish fans who attend games. In 2021, the Jewish Representative Council made a complaint to the club when hundreds of Palestinian flags were raised after the club allowed supporters to bring in tribute banners to mark the departure of long-serving midfielder Scott Brown.

After the very public support for Palestinians in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ attack on Israel this month, the club issued a statement of strong condemnation.

“Celtic is a football club and not a political organisation,” they said. “One of our core values from inception is to be open to all regardless of race, colour, politics or creed. That is why the club has always made clear that political messages and banners are not welcome at Celtic Park, or any match involving Celtic.

“At a time of loss and suffering for many, it is entirely inappropriate for any group of individuals to use Celtic Park as a vehicle for such messages.”

With the aforementioned controversies from recent years, plus recent trouble at away games against Dutch side Feyenoord in the Champions League and Motherwell domestically leading to a €23,000 (£20,000; $24,300) fine, the club are now taking a hardline stance, banning the Green Brigade from away matches. On Wednesday, they also denied early entry into the Green Brigade’s section of the stadium ahead of the home Champions League game against Spain’s Atletico Madrid.

“We have absolutely no doubt that these sanctions are motivated by a desire to quash political expression within the Celtic support, specifically in relation to Palestine at this time,” the Green Brigade retorted. “In spite of this, and any further obstruction, we once again encourage fans to courageously fly the flag for Palestine.”

Back came the club with another statement, released just hours before the Atletico game, saying: “Celtic Park is where we come to support our football club.

“Recognising this, respecting the gravity of the tragedy unfolding and its impact on communities in Scotland and across the world, and in line with other clubs, leagues and associations, we ask that banners, flags and symbols relating to the conflict and those countries involved in it are not displayed at Celtic Park at this time.”

Former Celtic manager Martin O’Neill had his say: “I would urge these people to think about the possible intimations and the messages that might be sent out here, particularly over the last couple of weeks.”

No flags, then, was the message.

Supporters did not heed those calls for the 4-1 victory at Hearts at the weekend, when the away end was full of Palestinian flags. And it was therefore absolutely no surprise to see the Celtic Park crowd ignore warnings from the club again on Wednesday, when the scale of support for Palestinians was perhaps even larger than expected.

Not that you would have necessarily seen the whole picture, or at least not at length, if watching the game on television, with the TV cameras pointing towards the Atletico fans for a chunk of the time the flags were being waved en masse.

But they were there. A strong groundswell of support for a part of the world which is 2,500 miles (4,000km) away.

Will UEFA punish Celtic? While the club asked fans not to bring such flags, the fact that they did so does not appear to directly contravene UEFA rules.

A relevant example would be when, some years ago, fans of Spain’s Barcelona got the club into trouble for flying Catalan flags, after which UEFA changed its regulations to ban gestures, words, objects, et cetera of a “provocative” nature, not just a “political” one.

UEFA has been asked for comment.

So while Celtic would be fined for provocative banners relating to events in a war zone, simply flying the flag of a country would be a question of interpretation for UEFA.

Either way, given the Green Brigade’s physical support for Palestinians, as well as the visual backing inside Celtic Park, we should expect the stand-off with the club to continue.

The group have visited the West Bank in recent years, assisting with humanitarian aid, raising money and helping launch a football academy based in a Palestinian refugee camp, Aida, giving youngsters and adults the opportunity to play football. Glasgow rock band Primal Scream helped collaborate with Aida Celtic FC, putting their name to a shirt, proceeds from the sales of which went to the camp.

Celtic fans on Wednesday night (Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

One Celtic fan, Jamie, says: “It chimes with what a lot of Celtic fans agree with. In fact, I’d say support for Palestine is unwavering. Palestine is basically seen as a mirror image of Ireland, and then in turn Celtic reflects Ireland in many ways. This isn’t just a football team, it’s much more than that.

“I sympathise with the club to an extent, because they are bound by UEFA rules, they pay the fines and they have little control over what fans sing or do, but I also feel they went too far with their statement because they tap into Irish politics and history all the time.”

Songs about pro-Irish unity and the Irish War of Independence are played at Celtic’s home games, such as Grace, The Fields Of Athenry and This Land Is Your Land, and the club regularly marks the Irish famine with a logo on the players’ shirts. They also proudly showed support for Ukraine last year.

“It’s a sensitive subject and a sensitive time,” Jamie adds. “I just don’t know why they feel the need to draw the line here.”

A club born on political grounds now find themselves trying to stay on the right side of political support from their fans, but this is not about Ireland. And while support for Palestinians extended far beyond the Green Brigade at Celtic Park on Wednesday night, not everyone agrees.

“I feel like some do just jump on the bandwagon,” one fan, who asks not to be named, says.

“It creates division among the fanbase and between the fans and the club. Some people feel marginalised and, yes, I definitely question the use of the Palestinian flag by some people. Not everyone, but some.”

Yes, there was a football match in the Scottish city of Glasgow on Wednesday night. It finished Celtic 2-2 Atletico Madrid.

But Celtic have always been about so much more than football.

(Top photo: Craig Williamson/SNS Group via Getty Images)

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