Why UEFA’s approach to flags at football matches needs a rethink

Beitar Jerusalem fans in action. EPA

Two European football ties involving Israeli teams in France and the UK in the second half of August have thrown an uncomfortable spotlight on how UEFA handles politics.

The first was Celtic’s Champions League qualifier in Glasgow against the Israeli club Hapoel Be'er Sheva on August 17. Celtic has a wing of politically active fans called The Green Brigade, who flew dozens of Palestinian flags at the game despite advance warnings from the authorities that the club could be fined if they did. Rightly or wrongly, Celtic were fined. But notice that no one objected to Be'er Sheva fans flying the national flag of Israel during the match.

The Green Brigade’s activism is part of the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, Glasgow’s other major club, together known as the Old Firm. Their antagonism is the oldest and among the most bitter in the footballing world. Celtic’s is a club rooted in the Irish community in Glasgow, while Rangers traditionally attracted the support of British loyalists.

Celtic and Rangers fans during an Old Firm clash. David Moir/Action Images/Reuters

The radicals in the Green Brigade, who have links with left wing fan groups such as those of Sankt Pauli in Hamburg, support causes they regard as “similar” to the Irish one. Celtic has been fined by UEFA for this kind of behaviour almost every season. UEFA would probably like to ban politics from football stadiums. It is the opposite of the consumer and family entertainment that it wants the game to be about.

Yet this doesn’t extend to treating two internationally recognised countries equally. Be'er Sheva fans were again allowed to wave their national flag at the return leg in Israel on August 23 – as is entirely normal, of course. The Green Brigade, which had raised more than £100,000 for Palestine in the interim, were thoroughly searched before entering the Be'er Sheva ground. Understandably in Israeli territory, no Palestinian flags were waved in the stands.

Beitar Jerusalem

While the Celtic match caused a stir in the UK, a Europa League game between St Etienne and Beitar Jerusalem in Israel at the exact same time received less attention. Beitar Jerusalem is another club with fiercely political supporters. Named after the Beitar Zionist youth movement, its supporters are on the far right of the Israeli political spectrum.

In the stands – and even in the streets – they regularly chant “Death to the Arabs”. No Arab player, whether Muslim or Christian, would be allowed to play in the team. The club’s hardcore supporters, La Familia, are among the most violent in the world. They regularly fly the flag of Kach, Israel’s banned far-right party, which is classified by Israel and the US as a terrorist organisation.

Not all football clubs in Israel are like this. Hapoel Tel Aviv, Beitar’s great rival, is the opposite. Its core supporters are explicitly anti-fascist, anti-racist and radically leftist. They have a policy of supporting and establishing relations with Israeli Arab clubs. Indeed most “Hapoel” clubs, including Hapoel Be'er Sheva, are linked with labour parties. Celtic fans take note.

Beitar fans flying the Kach flag. Haggai Aharon/Haaretz

When Beitar travelled to Charleroi in Belgium for a game a year ago, there was a lot of trouble. Yet the French police saw no reason to prohibit Beitar fans for the second leg against St Etienne. The first leg in Israel on August 17 had passed without major incident, though the Beitar fans displayed their explicitly racist flags and shouted accompanying chants. Fans visiting France have also been prohibited from dozens of games over the past two years due to the high security alert in the country.

St Etienne supporters claim to be apolitical. Yet in the second leg the Green Angels, one of the club’s “ultra” groups, waved Palestinian flags and banners with slogans such as, “All racists are bastards”. The Israeli press reported this, pointing out that Beitar fans had been prohibited from waving Israel flags during the game.

They didn’t acknowledge that police and stewards appear to have banned Palestinian flags as well, the problem being that home fans always find it easier to circumvent such bans – as Celtic’s Green Brigade were reminded in Israel. Meanwhile, no one raised any objections to Beitar fans flying the La Familia flag at the St Etienne game, or at the first leg the week before.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center NGO, is meanwhile claiming unfair treatment of the Israeli team and calling for St Etienne to be banned. St Etienne is now reportedly under investigation from the UEFA.

UEFA adjudicators have been busy.

Flagging a problem

What lessons can we learn from these incidents? Banning an Israel flag or a Palestine flag, but not a Kach or La Familia flag, is unwise and ill-informed. By acquiescing to the likes of the La Familia flag at games in Israel, that country’s authorities are giving its far right impunity. When the French did the same thing in St Etienne, they appear to have uncritically embraced the Israeli vision of what is punishable and what is not. Imagine a situation where the Israeli flag was banned and the Hamas flag authorised.

Yet at the same time, the simple fact is that politics in the stands does exist. These two matches show that efforts by the media and football’s governing bodies to conceal this don’t work. For the police and UEFA, to ban certain national flags while being not bothered by far right flags and chants is naive at best.

Wherever your sympathies lie, such bans set a precedent by discriminating against some nations over others. Banning only some national flags is also a political act by UEFA in itself. The organisation may prefer that this whole issue would go away. But to be consistent with its “say no to racism” campaigns, it needs to rethink its policies in this area instead.

This article was originally published in French