The Celtic fans having a pop at Rod Stewart last weekend were at least getting into the Christmas spirit nice and early. After all, what could be more seasonal than a family row sparked by a sozzled elder relative’s unacceptable political views?
For the crime of tweeting ‘Well done Boris’, the aging rocker and Celtic superfan-cum-resident embarrassing uncle was told in no uncertain terms where to go by the club’s Green Brigade ultras. Banners reading ‘Tories Not Welcome’ and ‘F*** off Rod’ delivered the considered verdict on the UK election from Glasgow’s East End constituency.
Now, by the standards of the current incendiary mix of sport and global politics this incident might seem small beer. It can’t be that surprising that a rich, wrinkly, rock star backed Boris, nor, given that Rod’s live set includes the Irish Republican ballad ‘Grace’ (also a favourite Parkhead anthem), is it likely his political positions are all that firm and consistent.
And anyway, unlike some of the other geopolitical baddies that sport is dealing with, the only occasion Rod has been guilty of serious human rights abuses was when he released ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?’
Still, it’s another example of how sport and politics can be as ill-fitting as the leopard-print lycra pants favoured by Rod in his heyday. Hitherto beloved by Celtic fans for weeping uncontrollably from the directors’ box at moments of Parkhead glory, Stewart’s support for the Tories is undoubtedly a bad move in the eyes of a traditionally left-leaning fanbase whose views on the Irish question are well known.
Can you be Celtic fan and a Tory? Can a football club be a broad church of beliefs united in support of the team on the park, or must they have clear identity on political and social matters? Do you love ‘Maggie May’ but draw the line at ‘Hot Legs’?
Sport is now much like that archetypal Christmas gathering, where simmering resentments and diametrically-opposed positions must be accommodated, at least until the Baileys runs out. While the Celtic quandary — can you back Boris AND Broony? — might be defused before the pudding is polished off, other familial rows will be less digestible.
It’s unlikely the plight of the Uighur people of Xinjiang province was too high on the agenda of Arsenal fans otherwise preoccupied by the shortcomings of Granit Xhaka and David Luiz. Mesut Ozil changed all that last week by calling out on Instagram the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government against the Muslim minority.
The post sparked a massive controversy, certainly the greatest impact that Ozil has had in some time given that his recent on-field appearances have resembled a plastic bag in the wind.
Chinese television cancelled a broadcast of Arsenal’s game against Manchester City, while Ozil was condemned in Chinese media for his statement. Social media depicted images of his jersey being burned, the Chinese foreign ministry said he had been “deceived by fake news,” while one newspaper claimed he wanted to start a holy war against China.
Given Ozil’s erstwhile talent as a creator of goals, to get the assist for global jihad would be quite something.
Arsenal have been criticised for their mealy-mouthed response, distancing themselves from Ozil and claiming that the club “always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics”
This statement could in itself be construed as a political one, of course, that being of tacit support for the persecution of the Uighurs (millions of whom are incarcerated in concentration camps in what has been described as a ‘cultural genocide’) in order not to piss off the lucrative and growing Chinese market.
Arsenal’s position is the one adopted almost across the board when sportspeople and sporting organisations are confronted with the bloody realities of what their business partners get up to.
Taking refuge in the idea that sport is somehow removed from politics is obviously nonsensical, given that countries like China and the Gulf states use sport to further their political and economic ends. Washing your hands of it all absolves you of guilt no more than it did for Pontius Pilate.
If the idea of having a gravel-voiced Tory rocker in the Parkhead directors’ box is hard for Celtic fans to digest, the entanglement of money, geopolitical manoeuvres, human rights and global sport is now like the proverbial midnight turkey and stuffing sandwich.
Liverpool’s presence in Qatar for the Fifa Club World Cup, the row over Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey’s support for Hong Kong protesters, Anthony Joshua’s world title fight in Saudi Arabia, and Rory McIlroy’s decision not to play there — the sports news cycle is now dominated by these gristly issues.
Unlike Arsenal, Liverpool at least paid lip service to the human rights concerns around Qatar. They refused the Fifa-designated hotel to which they were initially assigned due to migrant worker abuses during its construction. They also sought assurances on LGBT rights and believe their presence will highlight ongoing problems in the country.
Ultimately, though, their response amounted to little more than a shrug of the shoulders. “We don’t choose the location for the tournaments, organising bodies make their selections,” chief executive Peter Moores said. “We are not a political organisation and it is neither our place or our ambition to go from country to country forcing our values and our beliefs on others.”
The underlying truth is that modern sport in general, and big clubs in particular, have no values and beliefs other than the unfettered pursuit of revenues and new markets. And even if they wanted to act ethically they would soon fall foul of the governing bodies, sponsors and commercial partners with whom they are now so tightly interwoven.
For supporters there is the tricky reconciliation of the fact that this club with whom so much of their identities are wrapped up might not, in itself, share any of their fundamental values or beliefs.
They must simply live with the fact, whether they like it or not, that Liverpool will flatter the Qatari regime this week, that Arsenal will turn a blind eye to the horrors of ethnic cleansing and that Rod may very well be a Tory.