Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ultras and fandom: In defence of the Green Brigade

Guest post by Michael Lavalette. Michael is a socialist councillor in Preston. He works at Liverpool Hope University, is the national co-ordinator of the Social Work Action Network and a season-ticket holder at Celtic

There is a confusion amongst many people when they hear about football Ultras. Many assume that ‘Ultras’ is a synonym for ‘hooligan’ – but this is simplistic tabloid dross: most ultras are not looking for trouble or violent clashes with fans from other teams.

Similarly, the assumption – especially amongst many on the left – is that the term Ultras is a short–hand to refer to football fans with connections to the far-right. But in the world of football fandom this is a complete misunderstanding of what the term means and the range of groups who self-define as Ultras.

In football fan terms Ultras is a label adopted by those who want to go beyond the ‘normal’ limits in their support of their team. It means fanatical support, a commitment to follow home and away, to bring banners, undertake Tifos (collective displays with banners, placards, flags), corteos (unofficial marches to games), perhaps use piro and to sing, dance and move in almost choreographed ways – whether winning, drawing or facing defeat.

It is certainly the case that some Ultras groups (across much of the Balkans and at some Italian clubs) do identify with the far-right. But there are also explicitly left-wing Ultras groups – notably the Commando Ultras 84 (at Olympic de Marseille), Brigate Autonome Livorno 99 (Livorno), Original 21 (AEK Athens), and those associated with Adana Demirspor in Turkey, Omonoia in Cyprus and Celtic’s Green Brigade.

Readers of this blog may be aware of the Green Brigade. They gained some national prominence from their magnificent Tifo at the start of the Celtic/Barcelona Champions League match in November 2012. The game coincided with the 125 anniversary of the club and the display covered every seat in the stadium (with the exception of the Barca fans). You can get a glimpse of the display (and the atmosphere that night!) here: 


Or look at some of the still images here. In the days following the game Celtic quickly brought out prints of the display which sold well (though the entire cost of the Tifo – running to several thousand pounds – was carried by the fans).

Yet over the course of this season the Green Brigade have been increasingly vociferous in their complaints about how they are being treated by the Club and, more importantly, by Strathclyde police.

Several members have been arrested at their home. Others have been picked up on the way to matches. Banners have been removed. Members have been served with match bans (often without prior knowledge) or travelling bans. In the ground, police officers with cameras swarm over them in their part of the ground: ‘section 111’.

On the weekend of 16 February as many of them came into the ground they were met with officers with lists of names of those they wanted to ‘monitor’. In response the Ultras refused to take their seats. In effect this was the third boycott against harassment the group have participated in this season.

Then on Saturday 16 March about 200 members and supporters of the group were kettled in Glasgow’s Gallowgate area. The police claimed this was because they were trying to organise an unauthorised assembly and march to the ground. [1]

At 1pm on a Saturday there are lots of Celtic fans walking the 30 minute route to the ground but the police claimed they responded to ‘reports of a large gathering’. I’m sure we will all sleep well at night knowing that the police took a mere 9 minutes (from a 1pm assembly to a 1.09 kettle) to muster several hundred officers, horses, dogs, helicopters and riot vans. The response was either very efficient or pre-planned. The policing was so extreme that one leading Scottish QC suggested the events were reminiscent of the actions of a ‘police state’. [2]

The harassment has reached such proportions that the group has put out a statement saying the existence of the Green Brigade is now being brought into question. To understand why the GB are coming under such pressure from the state we need to look at their history and activities.

Celtic Ultras.

The Green Brigade were formed over the summer of 2006. It was a reaction to the direction the corporate owners were taking the club. Like most top clubs in Britain Celtic bought into the attempt to rebrand top class football. All seater stadia; a more ‘family orientated’ atmosphere (though not ‘family friendly’ in terms of pricing!); pre-match and half-time entertainment; an emphasis on ‘corporate hospitality’: all with the intention of altering the ‘match day experience’. 

The result, at Celtic and most top clubs in Britain, was to kill the atmosphere. Stadia were often silent. Singing reduced to an occasional tune at matches with close rivals. It was these developments that led Roy Kean to talk about the prawn sandwich element at matches. As one of the Green Brigade’s founders put it:

We are ardent Celtic fans who eat, sleep and breathe the team. … As Celtic fans to the core, we are proud of the club’s colourful, vocal and often humerous past, but the atmosphere at games was quite simply flat. [3]
 
The Green Brigade formed out of a split from an earlier fan-grouping the Jungle Bhoys. There was some disagreement over the perceived ‘closeness’ of the Jungle Bhoys to the powers at the top of Celtic and the Green Brigade formed with a view to keeping a degree of distance from the club authorities. But the GB was also clear from the beginning that they were a political grouping: "a broad front of anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian Celtic supporters" [4]

The originators were clear about their aims:
 
What makes the Green Brigade different is our politics. We are anti-racist, anti-sectarian, anti-fascist and left-wing and proud of the fact and similar to comrades from St Pauli, Livorno and Athletic Bilbao etc believe that we should be allowed to show our support for political causes which have always gone hand-in-hand with being a Celtic supporter. [5]

And what has politics got to do with football? Well:

Politics is life. Politics has always been part of football and it’s disingenuous to claim otherwise. In the 1909 Scottish Cup Final Celtic and Rangers fans rioted together against the authorities for various reasons including the widespread belief that both clubs had engineered a replay which the fans could ill afford. You cannot suspend reality when you enter a football stadium. Some of the recent decisions of Celtic plc are in our opinion highly contentious and could be regarded as political. For example the shameful decision to tarnish Jimmy Johnstone’s memory by having adverts for right-wing paper The S*n plastered on commemorative posters. Sponsors such as Nike, Coca-Cola and Coors are highly controversial companies criticised by watchdogs for operating sweatshops, having links to anti-union Columbian death squads and being generally anti-trade union, etc. We feel these sponsorships are outwith the spirit of the Social Charter and all that Celtic stood for. Would Michael Davitt, Land Leaguer, the man who laid the centre spot be proud of what has become of this club? To be successful does not mean sacrificing all your principles on the altar of competitiveness. ... We encourage Celtic’s board and shareholders to take a serious look at a more ethical fair-trade sponsorship policy more in keeping with the club’s socially concerned traditions. [6]

Since their inception, the Green Brigade have tried to bring colour and song to home and away games through their chants and tifos. You can see a range of their Tifos at the group’s own Youtube summation of season 2011/2012 here. This includes (at 11mins 40 secs) the unfurling of the fantastic banner of the four-men of the apocalypse created to celebrate the demise of Rangers last year. The group explain:


Our banners are a big part of what we do. From general banter to sending a hard hitting message, each one is carefully planned and executed to gain maximum effect. [7]

The displays also define the group's stance on a particular issue, not least the group banner itself. The Green Brigade logo with its distinctive skull and scarf was hung upside down at matches between 2006 and 2011. This was because of the role of the ex-MP John Reid on the Celtic board. Reid’s support of the Iraqi war and defence of Britain’s imperial role drew the group’s ire:

We know people often question or poke fun at us for hanging our banner upside down but we are resolute on this point. The custom actually comes from shipping days and was used as a sign of distress but is now common in the ultras culture. We were only a small group when we first started hanging the banner upside down so it allowed us to engage in a unique way with other fans while getting our point across. [8]

The banner remained upside down until the match after Reid’s resignation. Perhaps the most ‘notorious’ of their banner demonstrations came in November 2010. On the nearest Saturday to Remembrance Sunday teams in the SPL were to wear a red poppy on their shirts. Complaining about the role of British troops in the murder of civilians from Ireland to Iraq the whole section was covered with a banner proclaiming: “Your deeds would shame all the devils in Hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No Blood Stained Poppies on Our Hoops”


But banner protests are only one part of the group’s campaigning work.

The GB have regularly protested about the treatment of fans within the new Sky era. This has included banners protesting at ticket prices in Britain compared to continental Europe and changes to kick-off times. In April 2011 the group protested against ESPN’s demand that a mid-week Celtic-St Johnstone game kick off in Perth at 6pm. The 6pm kick-off meant people taking time off work to get to the match or missing out. It had a huge impact on the crowd numbers and people’s ability to watch their team. The response was the ‘Balls to 6pm Kick Offs’ protest. As the match got under way GB supporters launched footballs onto the pitch causing the game to be halted.

 
The GB are also part of the Alerta Network of anti-fascist fans groups. [9] As part of their anti-racist work they hold an annual ‘anti-discrimination’ football tournament which involves teams made up of local asylum seekers. The slogan of the event reflects Celtic’s own roots in the Irish migrant community: “Made by Immigrants, Refugees Welcome”.
 
At the end of the 2011/2012 season the GB displayed banners in support of Palestinian hunger strikers. This featured a banner reading "Dignity is More Precious than Food" alongside a flurry of Palestinian flags. A spokesman for the groups stated:
 
We did this in solidarity, to raise awareness and because it's the right thing to do. We want Palestinians to know we are thinking about them and encourage Scottish civil society to look at the injustice in Palestine. [10]

But what has undoubtedly provoked the ire of the Strathclyde police and the Scottish Government is the GB’s socialist-republicanism. Despite newspaper reports to the contrary, the GB rarely sing pro-IRA songs. Their songs are witty renditions of a range of traditional and modern songs from ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ (which the Club have tried to cash in on with T-shirts and mugs proclaiming the slogan) to ‘Zombie nation’ (sung about the ‘new’ Rangers). But in their repertoire are also a small number of songs commemorating the Irish Hunger Strikers (The Roll of Honour) and civilian victims of the British presence in the six counties (Aidan McAnespie [11]).

These songs have been used as an excuse to target the group under the new Scottish ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football’ legislation. This legislation was brought in after the so-called ‘shame game’ in season 2010-2011. A Scottish Cup clash between Celtic and Rangers ended up with a touch-line confrontation between Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon and two Rangers players being sent off.

The legislation was a panic reaction from the Scottish government and has led to the police targeting both Celtic and ‘new’ Rangers fans. But there is no doubt that it is the Green Brigade who the police have focussed on. In response several Celtic supporters groups have come together to form Fans Against Criminalisation. [12]

To the fury of many Celtic fans there seems to be no balance and no consistency. At Hampden Park earlier this year large sections of the crowd joined in songs celebrating the ‘Billy Boys’ (a celebration of a British Union of Fascist supporter in the 1930s) being ‘up to his knees in Fenian blood’ – yet there was little discussion in the media and no police action.

 
 
The Green Brigade have been targeted by the police because they represent a politically orientated approach to football fandom. They bring colour, singing and politics to football when the state, football authorities and the PLC want to sanitise football and take politics out of the game.
 
The campaign against the criminalisation of political football fans is one that we should all support – after all, if they get away with it at Celtic with the Green Brigade, who will be next?

----------------------------

[1] Angela Haggerty, “‘Disproportionate’ police presence and batons used on marchers at Glasgow’s Green Brigade football fan march.” 16 March 2013

[2] Gerry Braiden Top QC says response to Green Brigade march like a 'police state'” The Herald 18/3/2013
[3] TNT interview with the Green Brigade (2011) Part 1
[4] Roddy Forsyth: demented atmosphere in Scottish football led to SPL referees calling for strike action 25 Nov 2010
[5] Green Brigade Ultras
[6] Green Brigade Ultras
[7] The Green Brigade Part 2
[8] The Green Brigade Part 2
[9] https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alerta-Network-Antifascist-movement-celtic-fc/266427420060121?sk=wall&filter=12
[10] Andrew McFadyenA Celtic Message to Palestine”  Al-Jezeera 13 Jun 2012
[11] Henry MacDonald, British government admits regret over McAnespie killing” The Guardian 27 July 2009
[12] http://ultras-celtic.com/blog/?page_id=686