It is standard for supporters to discuss possible outcomes arising from a massive Champions League qualifier. Ordinarily, though, this doesn’t amount to speculating on the sanction from UEFA that will follow. Celtic cyberspace has been packed with such debate and discussion in recent days as a consequence of some of the club’s supporters’ intention to fly Palestinian flags when Israeli side Hapoel Be’er Sheva take to the Celtic Park pitch for the first leg of the Champions League on Wednesday.
UEFA’s catch-all about prohibiting “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 or religious nature” means that if the Palestinian flag is waved at Parkhead, a ninth fine in six years will be in the post from Europe’s governing body. One of the previous was indeed for this infraction, which also led to fines for St Johnstone and Dundalk in recent years.
Be’er Sheva, firmly on the rise following a first title win in 40 years, hail from an area that is one of the fronts in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The fourth largest metropolitan area in Israel, it is only 20 miles from the Gaza Strip, a supposedly autonomous Palestinian territory but recognised as under Israeli control by the United Nations as its inhabitants have no freedom of movement.
Be’er Sheva has been the target for rockets launched from the Gaza Strip and the scene of a number of attacks on residents. However, the football club’s owner Alona Barkat, whose husband Eli has made millions in the tech industry and whose brother-in-law, Nir, has been mayor of Jerusalem since 2008, wants to project an image of her team as an oasis of harmony in the Negev desert. “There is no place for racism or intolerance in soccer,” she has been quoted as saying of the club that she bought for £1.2 million in 2007. “Our team has Jews, Arabs, foreign Christians, and we sign players according to merit, not their ethnic or religious background. Through Hapoel Be’er Sheva, we can give back to society.”
Much has been made of Celtic’s opponents’ ousting of Olympiacos in the last round – achieved with two clean sheets and one goal – and the fact that they conceded only 24 goals in their title season.
However, cracks may now be showing. They were 2-0 down to Maccabi Haifa in Thursday night’s Super Cup before eventually winning 4-2, the game coming on the back of a 1-0 cup loss against Ashdod, the former club of Nir Bitton and Efe Ambrose. Captain, top scorer and last year’s player of the year Elyaniv Barda, left, will be absent after suffering a groin tear and he could be joined on the sidelines by ex-Leicester City and Benfica defender Miguel Vitor, troubled by a knee injury.
Much as Be’er Sheva deserve respect for reaching the play-off round, the fact this represents their best showing in continental competition betrays the fact they have no real pedigree in European football. With a wage bill around a third of that Brendan Rodgers has at his disposal and a league season that has yet to begin, the no-excuses culture that Rodgers wants to promote at his new club ought not be tested in the next week-and-a-half. Unlike Celtic’s relations with sections of their support and UEFA.