THE UEFA disciplinary hearing on Thursday into “behaviour of an unsporting nature, namely illicit chanting” from Celtic supporters during last month’s Europa League match against Rennes in Glasgow could conclude with the club being found not guilty.
It is largely forgotten that when the first charge of “discriminatory chanting” was made against Rangers supporters after they had been in Villarreal in 2006, the control and disciplinary body cleared the Ibrox club of the offence, their verdict subsequently overturned after UEFA lodged an appeal.
It will be the same committee – which can be up to ten strong but requires only a chairman and two members to rule – who sit in judgment on Celtic, following video evidence lodged by Strathclyde Police understood to show chants of “ooh, ah, up the RA” emanating from the section of Celtic Park that houses the Green Brigade. In turn, Celtic have offered their own written submission. They requested to have a representative attend but this is not standard and perhaps reflects the minor nature of any possible sanctions. Not that any outcome is being viewed in those terms by Celtic. “It is a concern because you don’t want to be up on the charge in the first place,” said manager Neil Lennon.
Celtic are being investigated under Article 11.2 of UEFA’s disciplinary regulations. That rule states sanctions can be imposed on a club over suppporters’ “use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, in particular if it is of a political, offensive or provocative nature”. It’s a catch-all that allows UEFA leeway to punish practically any support, should they so wish. But they tend to use their powers sparingly and if the “ooh, ah, up the RA” chants are deemed a “first offence”, the likelihood is the worst case scenario for Celtic will be a small fine and a warning over future conduct.
Celtic’s IRA chants certainly fit the Article 11.2 charge sheet. But then so too would Barcelona fans hanging a Catalan separatist flag at the Nou Camp that was banned by the authorities. Or Atletico Bilbao supporters holding up banners demanding the release of convicted ETA terrorists. Or, indeed, Scotland supporters singing Flower of Scotland.
UEFA have, in the past, been keen to steer well clear of penalising “political” chanting because of the complexities inherent in deciding what is, or isn’t, acceptable. And what that decree could leave them open to if a precedent was set.
In late 2006, the then UEFA head of communications William Gaillard held a press briefing in Hampden at which he was asked why it was that Rangers fans had been pursued for “discriminatory” singing – in the form of the sectarian The Billy Boys – but UEFA have never investigated Celtic over their IRA chants. Gaillard described these as two separate issues and said Celtic could be bracketed with many clubs whose supporters championed nationalist causes and who UEFA did not see as meriting disiplinary procedures. Only when it came to the Balkan countries was the situation different, with clubs in those nations handed sanctions for their chanting for political organisations who, in pursuing ethnic cleansing, were by their nature discriminatory. That did not apply to the IRA, he stated.
In an effort to seek clarification on any potential shifts in policy from UEFA over the past four years we sent the governing body a list of questions covering the above issues. They declined to respond. The reality is that the disciplinary hearing on Thursday is not the product of any deep-seated disquiet in European football circles over Celtic supporters’ songbook. Instead, it has been brought about by the climate of clampdown in this country ahead of the new bill governing offensive behaviour and football grounds and the authorities’ concerns over the Green Brigade.
Privately, the police have admitted that it is their intention to “smash” the Irish Republican, Marxist Green Brigade. They are willing to go to extreme lengths, in terms of their use of survelliance and a wide range of extraneous powers, to do so. Meanwhile, Cetic would privately welcome a slap on the wrists from UEFA this week since they, and the vast majority of their supporters, want Celtic Park free of the embarrassment they feel over paens to the IRA – as the stadium was for the decade before the Green Brigade was formed. The complexities on these matters do not begin and end with what comes from supporters’ mouths.