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06 Mar 2018

Manchester City: FA's yellow ribbon stance is laden with hypocrisy

(Photo credit: Thomas Rodenbucher)

Martin Glenn’s ludicrous statement at the weekend has unsurprisingly shifted the focus of the furore surrounding Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbon. Worn by the Manchester City manager in support of imprisoned pro-Catalan politicians, the current FA chairman bewilderingly compared the ribbon to ‘the hammer and sickle’, ‘swastika’ and ‘Isis badge’.

A swift apology followed. Quite what Glenn, or the FA’s PR department. was thinking when allowing such a statement into the public sphere is anyone’s guess. His lumping of the ‘Star of David’ into the equation was altogether more troubling, and the catalyst for his repentance.

Guardiola accepted his charge for ‘wearing a political message’ on Monday evening and awaits an imminent hearing. Given his willingness to avoid escalating matters, a slap on the wrist looks the most likely outcome. Yet, while that may constitute an amicable outcome to what had at one point threatened to be a much messier affair, the FA’s actions have set a worrying precedent.

One rule for us

Guardiola has been wearing the ribbon since last autumn when it was born in the aftermath of the illegal Catalan independence vote. Following the imprisonment of two high-ranking members of the independence movement, pro-Catalan sympathisers encouraged others to wear the ribbon as a sign of solidarity for Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, who are both being held without bail.

Guardiola has been adamant that his wearing of the ribbon is a non-political move, stating last month: “[It is] the same as when I wear the prostate cancer badge. The idea is the same. I’m pretty sure there are people all around the world in Spain and Catalonia who do not want to be independent, but they are not agreeing with putting people in jail.”

Glenn and the FA saw the matter rather differently. “To be honest, and to be very clear,” said Glenn, “Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbon is a political symbol. All we are doing is even-handedly applying the laws of the game.”

That would be fine, except Glenn and the FA’s consideration of the issue hasn’t quite been as even-handed as he suggests. In the same discussion that he spoke unflinchingly about the political message that the yellow ribbon projects, Glenn confirmed that “[the FA] have rewritten Law 4 of the game so that things like the poppy are OK but things that are going to be highly divisive are not.”

That is troubling. Glenn’s assertion that the poppy is not divisive is one that looks odd every time November 11th rolls around, and the perennially outraged come out to play whenever they spy a shirt that is missing a red flower. 

Try telling James McClean, the Northern Irish winger who rejects the embroidering of a poppy on his playing shirt, that the matter is apolitical. McClean finds himself the object of ire, and worse, on an annual basis, precisely because he chooses not to conform.

The validity of McClean’s reasoning is not for discussion here, but his is a case which highlights the dangerous territory that the FA has strayed into. Through deeming that the poppy is fine but all other potentially political symbols are not, the governing body is effectively anointing itself as the arbiter of what constitutes an acceptable opinion to hold.

A slippery slope

When FIFA attempted to bar the England national team from playing with poppies on their shirts, the FA argued, ultimately successfully, that they should be allowed to do so, on the basis that the emblem was apolitical. 

Yet how can a symbol which is so intricately linked to the two World Wars be wholly apolitical? Yes, it is a commemoration of the dead, but it is a commemoration of those who have died fighting wars all across the globe, wars which have all been politically driven in one way or another. 

It is of little surprise that Guardiola is expected to invoke the FA’s own logic during his hearing. He claims to wear the ribbon not to support a political movement, rather as a symbol of his opinion that the imprisonment of people for holding certain political beliefs is wrong.

One wonders how the FA could argue against this, given that Guardiola has specifically stated his reasons and sought to separate them from the pro-Catalan movement itself. Yet Glenn’s words, and their distinct lack of ambiguity, are telling. 

To Glenn and the FA, the yellow ribbon is undeniably political, raising as it does the hugely contentious issue of whether Catalonians should be granted independence. To them, it is a direct contravention of Law 4.

Again, this points to the FA’s belief it can decide what constitutes acceptable opinion. The poppy is fine, presumably because a majority of the United Kingdom agrees with the message it sends. The yellow ribbon is not, presumably because a majority of the United Kingdom doesn’t have a stated opinion on the matter, and because the official line of Spain, and thus, the Spanish FA, is that the independence movement is an illegal attempt to divide up the nation.

The FA risks tumbling down a slippery slope. They cannot consistently hold the view that an emblem many believe is linked to past political endeavours is wholly apolitical, whilst simultaneously ignoring someone’s argument that they are wearing a symbol for non-political reasons. They cannot determine that Pep Guardiola is wrong to hold his own interpretation of one symbol, whilst they themselves hold their own interpretation of another.

Ultimately, it seems as though public pressure shapes the FA’s actions more than any claims they may make about ensuring their own independence. Back in 2001, when England played a friendly the day before Armistice Day without a poppy in sight, no one batted an eyelid. Yet fifteen years later, when FIFA sought to impose their aforementioned ban, the FA leapt headfirst into the matter, seeking to improve its own image and curry favour with the tabloid media.

Were The Sun newspaper to come out tomorrow in favour of Catalan independence, it would be a safe bet that the FA would retreat into the shadows. Were a majority of the British public to declare their support for the separatist movement, the FA would no doubt find a way to accept Guardiola’s reasoning.

That is no way for a governing body to act.

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