Celtic fans’ politics shouldn’t be left at turnstile out of fear of fascist thugs

Politics should be left at the turnstile. That’s often the refrain from people who leave their traditional beat on the sports pages to comment on the wider issues around the game.

Just as fans and clubs do. And, when it suits them, governing bodies themselves.

Keith Jackson, writing in today’s Daily Record, insists the banners aimed at Lazio’s ultras not only were ill-advised but that they “put a target on every supporter heading to Rome”.

Celtic fans going to Rome would have known well in advance that they were potentially a “target”.

Lazio supposedly defunct ‘Irriducibili’ ultras are notorious for violence.

Celtic fans could have laid a path of petals for them to walk over on their way to Parkhead and yet found themselves being picked off by a mob of thugs in the Italian capital. Just as Ajax fans launched indiscriminate attacks on Celtic supporters, a trip to certain clubs brings heightened risk.

It’s irresponsible to point the finger of blame for any potential incidents in Rome before anything happens. If anything does happen, it will be the responsibility of the person or group who perpetrates the crime and that’s the top and bottom of it.

There is a culture of violence at Lazio. Full stop. Fans who are prone to riding behind fans on mopeds to knife them do not need an excuse. They will do it anyway. Celtic fans who were stabbed and slashed in Turin after Juventus had just knocked them out of the European Cup in 1981 will know all about it.

As will Liverpool supporters who travelled to Rome in 1984, where they were hunted down by fans of Lazio’s city rivals, Roma as they won the European Cup.

Reds fans were on the receiving end as Roma fans “stabbed, slashed and brutalised the away supporters on a mass scale”.

The Independent reports: “The reaction the following morning in Italy was one of immense embarrassment. La Republica headlined, ‘Manhunt against the English,’ Il Corriere dello Sport reported, ‘The aftermath of the match brought a night of vile, blind violence that disappointment cannot justify,’ and Il Tiempo said, ‘This could have been an occasion to demonstrate civility. Instead, the usual group of fans with knives, bottles and sticks went on an odious manhunt.’”

The “usual group” referred are those who still trade in thuggery.

Only two months ago, Irriducibili leader Fabrizio Piscitelli, known as ‘Diabolik, was assassinated in a Rome park.

Without speculating on motives as he reportedly had his fingers in a few pies, but it seems fair enough to say that he wasn’t murdered for his belief in pacifism.

The far-right ideology of the Lazio ultras is the thread that binds them together. The club, for decades sullied by this behaviour faces a partial stadium ban and the threat of full closure for future incidents.

Police Scotland may have felt it was a good idea to let them away with it en masse in broad daylight on Glasgow’s streets, but that doesn’t mean Celtic fans should have felt similarly intimidated when opting to show their opposition to, let’s be frank, a bunch of Neo-Nazis.

What would have made these fans “a target” before they were set upon?

This is a group steeped in racism, fascism and antisemitism. They deserve to be opposed.

Whether the ‘Brigate Verde’ banner was the way to do it is up for debate, not least among Celtic fans. The star is the symbol of Italy. It is also the symbol used by partisan groups in WW2, the people who executed and hung the murderous dictator Benito Mussolini at the end of the war (a separate banner depicting the gruesome scene drew the wrath of his granddaughter).

By putting a circle around it, however, the Green Brigade seemed to borrow the iconography of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades). With no knowledge of the thinking behind it, the banner can only be taken at face value and it would be disingenuous to argue here that, at face value, it represents something else.

Whether the intention merely a play on words, the fact is that the Red Brigades were one of the major players in a brutal cycle of violence (both left and right-wing) that scarred Italy. To hark back to it is, to borrow a line from the Sex Pistols, something of a “cheap holiday in other people’s misery”.

However, that’s not to say that politics should be “left at the door” as former Home Secretary and defence secretary John Reid ironically said when appointed Celtic chairman. When people say that, they mean expression of political opinion they don’t agree with should be shut down.

The Green Brigade have a regular food bank drive, as does the club. This very act is political because the need for foodbanks is as a direct result of the war on the working class perpetuated by the current Tory administration, whose austerity policies have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

A flag protest during the match against Hapoel Be’er Sheva drew attention to the plight of Palestine at the hands of a repressive Israeli regime. It served several purposes. It let the people in refugee camps know that they weren’t forgotten and, with a campaign that spread far and wide, it provided publicity and, in practical terms, funds for hard-pressed charities.

UEFA doesn’t want politics in football, but the act of admitting Israeli teams is in itself a political act.

Commentators might also bristle at the Irish Republican sentiment expressed at times in that section and by wider sections of Celtic fans. Forgetting for a second the songs in tribute to sectarian murder gangs bellowed out at Ibrox, as anyone who watched the BBC’s disturbing Spotlight on the Troubles will know, the British state had a nefarious influence and, often, direct hand in the bloodshed.

Yet, the British military machine is now feted at football grounds across the country. For those old enough to remember, a minute’s silence wasn’t always held at stadiums. Not even Ibrox. In an age when football was largely played on Saturday’s, Remembrance Day was for town cenotaphs across the country.

The lack of a minute’s silence at games didn’t lead to hands thrown in the air about “disrespect” over the fallen in the wars.

However, a marketing campaign following two unpopular wars in Iraq (which millions took to the streets to protest) and Afghanistan has led to a situation when Remembrance Sunday is now merely a part of ‘poppy season’.

What was once a sombre occasion is now a crass exercise in political commercialisation. You can buy poppy trainers, poppy thongs, poppy onesies, and lots more. You can wear all this why driving a poppy-painted tank. You can even wear a poppy while making a Nazi salute, if your ultra-patriotism bends that far backwards.

As Jeremy Corbyn found out, the size of your poppy matters. Which brings us to the British champions of Poppyism, Rangers.

Their fetishism of British militarism and imperialism means that not only do they require a giant poppy tifo, or a cascading poppy waterfall on their electronic advertising boards, or even the artillery division of the Army bringing a cannon on the pitch to start and end a minute’s silence (yes, that really happens, because nothing says dignified silence more than the blast of cannon fire) they even have their own Remembrance Day.

Just as Armed Forces Day falling at an inconvenient time during the close season means Rangers need to hold their own event (soldiers abseiling, marching, presenting the ref with the match ball and, er, waving “Keep Ulster Protestant” scarves, joining in with the sectarian singing of the Billy Boys and that Ibrox favourite about the death of Bobby Sands), so it is the case with the Armistice commemorations.

Having a dignified minute’s silence at Livingston on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday is now insufficient for Rangers. They now have to have their own event, or perhaps relinquish their claim to be the primary “quintessential British club”. Not only do you have to do something, you have to be seen to be doing something, hence the full-stand tifo.

A thought, though, wouldn’t the money it cost for such a display be better spent going into those charity buckets? Or even just pay the taxes that boost the coffers of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces?

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Celtic, of course, take part in their own tribute observing a minute’s silence, while the Celtic Charity Foundation makes an annual financial contribution.

As the minute’s silence progresses at Parkhead on November 10 ahead of Celtic’s clash with Motherwell, the ears of the ready-to-be-offended, in homes and in media rooms, will be pressed hard against their turned-up radios, waiting for the slightest noise that can be classed as a “disruption”.

The vast majority of fans will observe the silence, but Celtic’s own political decision to embroider a poppy on the jersey led to much debate. Not everyone’s experiences of the British state and its armed forces, whether far or wide, are positive. That’s not to denigrate the memory of the people who died in the mud of Flanders or who fought Hitler.

It is to recognise that imperial forces leave scars behind and for a club that has a large section of its support from the north of Ireland, this is a sensitive subject.

On a wider scale, UEFA frowns on politics only when it suits them.

Recall the minute’s silence at all Champions League and Europa League matches for Nelson Mandela. The former South Africa president was by the time of his death an international statesman.

Mandela deserved his tribute but, had he died in the 1980s, as far as South Africa’s apartheid regime and Britain’s then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (and future PM David Cameron) were concerned, his epitaph would have read that he was a “terrorist”.

The game’s governing body also appears to be silent on the recent political intervention by Barcelona FC as Spain cracks down on Catalonian independence. The club, who were fined after fans displayed pro-Catalan independence flags in 2015, released a statement after Spain jailed nine separatist leaders to between 9 and 12 years in jail.

It may be the case that there are tabloids in Spain who are suggesting that politics should be kept out of football over there, but Barcelona’s statement didn’t seem to cause a ripple here, and certainly no warnings that Barca fans would have “put a target on every supporter” who heads to Madrid for an El Classico derby.

In wider sport, Tommie Smith and John Carlos were criticised for their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, subjected to death threats and ostracised by the sporting establishment. Silver medallist Peter Norman, a white Australian who backed his fellow athletes was slammed by conservatives in his country.

Years later, Australia formally apologised to Norman, with one MP stating to Parliament that the athlete’s gesture “was a moment of heroism and humility that advanced international awareness of racial inequality.”

Later still, conservatives in the US railed at NFL athletes taking a knee in protest at police brutality, a protest that saw Donald Trump cement his position as the loudest voice for intolerance and oppression.

Those who remember Scotsman Allan Wells famous Olympic 100m sprint win in 1980 will also remember that those games were boycotted by 66 countries including the US. (Wells would a year later beat the top US athletes of the day, defying claims that his achievement was devalued by the boycott).

And, having mentioned Nelson Mandela earlier, it should be remembered that there was a sporting boycott of the South Africa apartheid regime that held him in jail, with sports including football, cricket, golf, rugby tennis, chess among others.

The idea of separating sport in general or football specifically from politics is nonsense. In that same year of 1968, Bob Kelly took a stance against communist aggression when Celtic were drawn to play Ferencvaros of Hungary in the European Cup.

As reports the Celtic Wiki, Kelly said: In view of the illegal and treacherous invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian, Polish and Hungarian forces and in support of the Czech nation, we, the Celtic Football Club, do not think that any Western European Football Club should be forced to fulfil any football commitment in any of these countries.”

The draw was rearranged after protest and counter-protest.

Kelly went on to say: “Celtic will hold their heads high for what they did. If UEFA had ruled against us we would almost certainly have competed only under the strongest type of protest; we might well in the circumstances have withdrawn from the competition. There are things for Celtic more important than money.”

Kelly’s political stance is far more palatable as a Celtic supporter than the type of appeasement by sporting bodies that saw the swastika fly over Ibrox for a Scotland v Germany game, and Nazi salutes in London in 1936.

People may debate as to whether enough was known about what the Nazis were about at the time, as the above article does. However, there’s no debate about the motives of a group of fans who abuse the memory of Anne Frank and the horrors she suffered, taking a tragic symbol of the depths to which humanity can sink and using it as a badge of dishonour in the name of their football team.

Lazio the club and those among their wider support who abhor this are right to be ashamed of them.

Politics in sport is a complex, multi-layered argument. The default “keep them separate” means absolutely nothing. No one is suggesting people have to agree with every flag, banner or sentiment on display, but when it comes to making statements against the far-right, “vaffanculo Lazio” is a reasonable place to start.

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