Hypocrisy is the only common ground in the FA-Pep Guardiola yellow ribbon debate

Stop looking for perfect messengers and political neutrality. It’s a fool’s errand.

Pep Guardiola and his yellow ribbon (Man City/Facebook)

Martin Glenn, who is somehow still the chief executive of England’s Football Association, does not understand political symbolism.

Don’t take my word for it. Just read what the man said on Sunday:

“To be honest, and to be very clear, Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbon is a political symbol, it’s a symbol of Catalan independence, and I can tell you there are many more Spaniards, non-Catalans, who are (expletive) off by it,” Glenn told reporters after an IFAB meeting.

“All we are doing is even-handedly applying the laws of the game. Poppies are not political symbols. That yellow ribbon is. Where do you draw the line?”

“We have re-written Law 4 of the game so that things like a poppy are OK,” Glenn said. “But things that are going to be highly divisive, and that could be strong religious symbols, it could be the Star of David, it could be the hammer and sickle, it could be a swastika, anything like (Zimbabwe’s former president) Robert Mugabe on your shirt, these are the things we don’t want.”

Glenn subsequently apologized. That is what one does after clumsily putting the Star of David and swastika on equal footing in a sentence to prove…oh, why bother?

This latest gaffe showcases Glenn’s preternatural ability to draw attention to idiocy that might otherwise have escaped notice while obscuring the precise nature of said idiocy with wild rhetorical flailing. The proximate issue is the FA’s decision to charge Pep Guardiola with violating its prohibition on political symbols by wearing a yellow ribbon in support of jailed and exiled Catalan politicians. The charge, which is weeks old and follows months of warnings, was always incoherent. Somehow the FA’s role in this mess went largely uncriticized until Glenn’s latest bout of ill-considered logorrhoea.

This, apparently, is the point where Qatar and Abu Dhabi have to be discussed. Pep Guardiola, as you may have heard, promoted the former’s World Cup bid and is now bankrolled by the latter’s riches. He also ignored French footballer Zahir Belounis’ desperate plea for help escaping Qatar. In the weeks since the FA’s charge was announced, these moral failings have dominated the discourse. How, outraged pundit after outraged pundit asked, could Pep Guardiola care about political freedoms close to home but not further afield? Football Weekly devoted two episodes to one-upmanship on this front culminating in a strange invocation of all the plaudits such moral courage had received. All this self-congratulatory anger left two questions largely unaddressed: What if Guardiola has a point? What if the FA charge doesn’t really make sense?

Pep Guardiola’s critics are not wrong in noting that he’s a self-serving hypocrite. That was the case long before he started wearing the yellow ribbon. Mind you, most people, especially in football, are hypocrites who have an easier time shrugging off abuses in faraway places. It is fair enough to note that repeated dalliances with vile regimes lessen his political authority, but the focus on Abu Dhabi and Qatar has gone further than that. It has given cover to a Football Association that, among other things, has been happy to let an arm of the UAE own and operate a club. In that context, it’s at least worth noting that Guardiola’s point about the Spanish government’s treatment of Catalan leaders is not implausible. The jailing of political opponents and dissidents is ill advised, both in this case and as a general principle.Yet football punditry’s penchant for moral absolutism has led us to a place where Qatar’s handling of political dissent is bad and Spain’s lesser-yet-real failings don’t exist.

The focus on Qatar and Abu Dhabi was nevertheless a boon for a Football Association that has long struggled to clearly describe its stance on political symbolism. (It is also, as Alanis Morissette would say, a little too ironic seeing as this focus on Qatar has helped the English FA…which just last month agreed to a partnership with Qatar.) Specifically, the FA would like you to know that the poppy is not a political symbol. Nothing to see here. Move on folks. Never mind that the poppy has, in some contexts, been understood and adopted as a symbol of British nationalism. Never mind that the FA was fined by FIFA for putting the poppy on its kits in contravention of a ban on political symbols. Never mind that the same FA vowed to flout FIFA’s policy on political symbols and take the issue to the court of arbitration of sport. No, there is nothing to see here.

Enter Martin Glenn, who approached the question of political symbolism with all the delicacy of Basil Fawlty shouting “Don’t mention the war!” While the poppy had been the obvious subtext to the yellow ribbon episode, it took Glenn’s tin ear for politics to foist it into the foreground. His point that “Poppies are not political symbols. That yellow ribbon is” exposed the fundamental flimsiness of the FA’s position, which amounts to little more than because we say so. Of course lots of groups say their symbols exist above the fray of politics, Martin. That’s how this game works. Good luck adjudicating all these claims of neutrality and symbolism. This is not a Potter Stewart scenario where anyone can recognize a political symbol at first glance.

The example of the Star of David is instructive here, albeit not at all in the way Glenn expressed it. Like virtually every symbol it contains multitudes. It is, most obviously, the central symbol on Israel’s flag. That use is political insofar as the nation state is always political. It is, however, hard to imagine that Martin Glenn opposing all national symbols—if so, he should reconsider England’s kits and international football more broadly. Maybe he was thinking of the Star of David as a symbol of particular political parties and ideas, which is yet another meaning. But for some, the Star of David also serves as a religious or cultural symbol independent of any party or national affiliation. It has also been used as a decorative pattern in contexts that have nothing to do with Judaism. This multiplicity of meanings is true of most symbols, but Martin Glenn’s FA would like you to accept its singular readings of the poppy and yellow ribbon.

An actual ban on political symbols necessarily requires the prohibition of symbols that are widely accepted or that also have non-political meanings. Glenn’s clumsy statement tried to elide the distinction between the political and the “highly divisive,” but those are different concepts. A blanket ban on political symbols is difficult to enact precisely because it requires banning images that are quite popular. Anything else is just a ban on symbols with which an organization is not comfortable. Anything else is just an effort to ensure that the product on display does not risk blowback from sponsors or, to a lesser degree, the public. The Football Association’s policy has long fallen into the latter category while presenting as something more high-minded.

Insofar as Pep Guardiola’s worldview is self-serving and hypocritical, as we have so often and correctly been reminded, so too is that of the Football Association. It should not have taken Martin Glenn’s latest display of ineptitude for this to become obvious.

Follow David on Twitter @DavidSRudin.