Celtic, Sport and the Attempted Depoliticisation of Collective Space

Author: Alister Wedderburn

Parkhead, Glasgow, 26 November 2013: as Celtic and AC Milan run through the formalities before kick-off, one corner of the grand, sold-out stadium begins to unfurl a series of banners. They are in the section occupied by the Green Brigade, the home side’s ‘ultra’ group, and even by the immoderate standards of Glasgow’s football-centric sectarianism, [1] they are provocative. There is a portrait of William Wallace, and another of Bobby Sands, the IRA soldier and 1981 hunger striker. Accompanying them is a lyric from ‘Terrorist or Dreamer’ by Provisional IRA commander-turned-songwriter Bik McFarlane, Sands’ commanding officer in the Maze prison. [2]

On 13 December UEFA, European football’s governing body, fined Celtic €50,000 for the display of an ‘illicit banner. [3] Reading UEFA’s 193-page club handbook [4] one would be forgiven for failing to spot the rule broken by the Green Brigade, for less than twenty words in total are concerned with fan behaviour, and the prohibition of political expression is further embedded amongst other proscriptions: ‘Fan activities, choreographies, mosaics, etc. showing political, racist or commercial messages…are not allowed’.

They may not talk about it at much length, but UEFA – not to mention other high-level sporting institutions [5] – are fervently keen to keep their product and those of their ‘commercial partners’ free from any message or image that might compromise branding or global sale-ability. Though the traditionally loyalist Rangers’ financial travails means they are currently plying their trade out of sight in the lower leagues, the two big Glaswegian clubs’ support has traditionally paid little heed to such entreaties: Celtic’s fine was their fourth European sanction for political proclamations in two years. Similar pro-republican banners have been regularly displayed at domestic matches. [6]

The rhetoric that follows events of this nature follows a pattern: politics should be ‘left to the politicians’,[7] political statements have ‘no place’ within the stands, [8] football stadia must not be used ‘to promote [political views]’.[9] Without expressing either approval or condemnation of the sentiments behind the Green Brigade’s banners, statements like these misunderstand and/or misrepresent the nature of sport, politics and collectively-occupied space. Sports clubs are inherently political because inherently representative and synecdochical; occupation of space is inherently political because occupation implies ownership – an implication amplified to a squall by a mass as large and coherent as a football crowd.

In speaking of politics and sport as separable entities, the game’s authorities form part of a diffuse but widespread project attempting to depoliticise space in which large numbers of people come together; to sanitise such places and move them towards what Mark Augé calls ‘non-places’.[10] Augé defines the non-place as ‘a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity’ – aeroplanes, transit hubs, anywhere with free wi-fi in which one can disappear into the solipsism of the smartphone. Sport’s administrative institutions often work in tandem towards this end with governmental forces engaged in a depoliticisation process of their own that views sporting space as just one of many in which collective possibilities for expression can be diluted or sterilised.

The 2013 proposals to ‘develop’ Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park are perhaps the paradigm of recent government-instigated forms of space-depoliticisation. Closer to home, however, the 2006  ‘Serious Organised Crime and Police Act’ prohibited unauthorised demonstrations within a kilometre of Parliament Square. The artist Mark Wallinger’s piece ‘State Britain’ recreated protestor Brian Haw’s enormous display, taken down almost in its entirety in the wake of the bill (though Haw himself was allowed to stay). Wallinger displayed his work in the Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries, a space bisected by the bill’s prohibitive 1km radius. The work brilliantly articulated the discourse between place and non-place, making apparent a tension to which users and managers of public space alike would do well to be more sensitive, and illustrating that the confrontation staged by the Green Brigade is one which has wider societal implications than both the tribalistic nature of football supportership and the kneejerk nature of football snobbery tend to assume.


[1] Vice: Rangers & Celtic (45 minute documentary): http://www.vice.com/en_uk/rivals/rangers-celtic-part-1

[2]’The terrorist or the dreamer / The savage or the brave? / Depends whose vote you’re trying to catch / Or whose face you’re trying to save’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rK_280ebIY

[3]A point of context to help locate the meaning of the number: in June 2012, it took UEFA twice as long to fine the Russian football federation half as much after their fans had directed monkey noises at black Czech player Theodor Gebre Selassie.

[4]UEFA Champions League Club Manual 2013/2014: http://www.rsca.be/uefa/20122013/download/admin/UEFA_UCL_Club-Manual_20132014.pdf, p. 139

[5]One can see the desperate travails of the International Olympic Committee to disentangle the upcoming Sochi winter Games from Russia’s new homosexuality laws and quell any associated protest as another example of this process.

[6]http://www.ultras-celtic.com/gallery/d/6012-7/len1.jpg, http://i.imgur.com/CXm26.jpg

[7]Michel Platini, interview at 2013 UEFA Under-21 European Championships, June 2013: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dA-TqGde5I8

[8]‘Celtic: Neil Lennon disappointed by Green Brigade banner’, BBC News, 29 November 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/25160458

[9]Celtic Football Club statement, 27 Nov. 2013: http://www.celticfc.net/newsstory?item=4992x

[10] Augé, M. (1995): Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso), pp. 77-78