Wednesday night’s match against Hapoel Beer Sheva at Celtic Park was one of those pulsating games which make you glad you’re Celtic fan. After some fairly inept and flaccid performances in Europe during the Ronny years it was great to see the team flying out of the blocks, a support backing them to the hilt and a Manager with the cojones to change things when the side had a wobble early in the second half. The tie is far from over but there is a verve and pace about Celtic’s play which bodes well for the season ahead. It’s hard to think of a player who didn’t contribute to a solid and in the end convincing victory. Walking out of the stadium there was a buzz, a feeling that something good was finally happening at Celtic after years of down-sizing and cost cutting. One fan I spoke to said it was like the beginning of the O’Neil years.
Football is a cyclical game in the sense that every few years there needs to be change, a new beginning at a club. Celtic has laboured in Europe in recent years and in truth the fans know success in Scotland alone is never totally satisfying. Of course, we don’t expect to win the Champions League but we should expect to field a side which at least competes against clubs of similar stature. Too often we have lost to sides with a fraction of our resources and that needs to change. The arrival of Brendan Rodgers indicates a more ambitious approach from Celtic. A manager of his stature wouldn’t have taken the job without assurances that he would be able to mould the squad into a more effective unit. That costs money and the arrival of Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure suggests Celtic will now spend reasonable money. Sinclair cost around £3.5m and while Kolo came on a free transfer, both players will be on wages suitable for players who have played in the English Premiership. Rodgers was undoubtedly one of the main reasons they came north and the contacts and reputation he has in the games will serve Celtic well. With others such Mousa Dembele and Dorus De Vries adding to a squad that already had some talented players then there is genuine optimism that Celtic are on the up. In the wake of the 5-2 victory over Hapoel, Rodgers stated when asked if he was planning to sign another quality player…
‘Always with the club it’ll be about affordability and availability but certainly the club has shown thus far that they are prepared to back what it is I want to do, the types of players that we want to bring in and I’m sure this one will be no different.’
He is undoubtedly a man who knows where he wants to take Celtic and has embraced the club with the affection of a fan and the dedication of a manager who knows the score. Rodgers has so far shown he is exactly what Celtic needed to reignite the support and mould a team worthy of Celtic’s traditions.
As I looked around Celtic Park on Wednesday evening there was that old, familiar atmosphere. The stadium fairly rocked as the Celtic songs boomed out. There is no doubt that the noise had an effect on the Hapoel players as their manager admitted. He said post-match that he ‘had never heard such a noise in a football stadium.’ Rodgers himself said that the support were Celtic’s twelfth man. That wonderful backing of the team is one of the distinguishing features of Celtic in Europe. Success in Europe is so important to the supporters that they give their all and go home exhausted after big games. The Champions League is tantalisingly close but Rodgers is long enough in the tooth to know the job is only half finished.
The many Palestinian flags on display during the game have led to UEFA opening disciplinary proceedings against Celtic. It also opens up to clear view the chasm of hypocrisy which goes on at football with regards to ‘political’ displays. Games in UEFA sanctioned competitions must follow their rules and the key words in the rule book frown upon…
‘The use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative in nature.’
Yet we see fines for Barcelona over the flying of Catalan flags by their supporters while simultaneously the Israeli flags at Ajax are routinely ignored. We see clubs such as Celtic, Dundalk, St Johnstone and Omonoia (Cyprus) being fined for supporters displaying Palestinian flags as they are deemed political yet UEFA encouraged the showing of banners marking the passing of Nelson Mandela. The great man was considered a freedom fighter by some and a terrorist to others at points in his life before eventually becoming a politician and President of South Africa. It was as if the prevailing opinion that as he was fighting apartheid this allows this expression of sympathy at his passing to go ahead at football games. Some would doubtless argue, with some justification, that the Palestinian people are also fighting an unjust system which has oppressed and dispossessed them for decades.
No one is suggesting a free for all regarding flags at UEFA controlled games as this would probably get out of hand given the lunatic fringe which attaches itself to some clubs, most notably in Eastern Europe. However the ruling body should be seen to be above reproach and applying the rules without fear or favour.
UEFA allows its member Associations discretion to police what goes on in domestic games and here in Scotland we’ve seen our share of political controversy. The Green Brigade’s Bobby Sands and William Wallace display was designed to show that our societies wilfully promote some political or historic figures which discouraging or even banning others. The annual fuss over wearing a poppy is another political intrusion into sport as is the god awful tacky goings on at Ibrox on armed forces day. Firing guns and abseiling down stands is hardly a sombre act of remembrance. Nor is the singing of bigoted songs during these jamborees. You cannot have it both ways, either sport is kept out of the political arena or it isn’t.
Many feel strongly that the west and the media here have their own agenda and allowing the Palestinians a voice is seldom part of it. From around the globe though there were messages of thanks from Palestinian groups who had witnessed the events at Celtic Park. Whether you think the flag display was noble or (in the words of journalist, Tom English) ‘idiotic,’ it can’t be denied that many saw this non-violent act of defiance as a welcome gesture of solidarity with a suffering people.
UEFA may well fine the club again but for those who took part in the display, there are no regrets.