Pep Guardiola: Mixing Sports with Politics

Pep Guardiola: Mixing Sports with Politics

Wednesday, 7 March, 2018 - 07:30
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. (Getty Images)
London - Richard Williams
As they consider the case of Pep Guardiola, who won his first medal in English football at Wembley on Sunday while semi-surreptitiously sporting a yellow ribbon in support of the jailed members of the Catalan independence movement, the leaders of the Football Association might look back at the record of their own predecessors, and in particular at the events of 1938, when they ordered the England football team to perform the Nazi salute in Berlin’s Olympic stadium.

History tells they did so under instruction from the British ambassador to Germany, Sir Nevile Henderson, who was having a difficult year. On the morning of the match, Henderson had called a meeting with two senior FA figures: the 71-year-old Charles Wreford-Brown, chairman of the international selection committee, and Stanley Rous, the association’s secretary.

“When I go to see Herr Hitler,” the ambassador told them, “I give him the Nazi salute because that it is the normal courtesy expected. It carries no hint of approval of anything Hitler and his regime may do. And if I do it, why should you or your team object?”

After Rous and Wreford-Brown had transmitted the request to their captain, Eddie Hapgood, and his team‑mates, it seems some certainly did object. According to Stanley Matthews, a scorer in England’s 6-3 victory: “All the players were livid and totally opposed to this, myself included.” They backed Hapgood when he said they would simply stand to attention during their opponents’ national anthem, as was their normal practice.

Rous responded by turning the instruction into an order, backed by the ambassador. And so it was that 11 footballers representing England stood in line abreast in the Olympic stadium on 14 May 1938, under the eyes of Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and 110,000 German fans, raising their right arms in unison with their opponents while Deutschland über alles was sung.

It is hard to look at the photographs of the Berlin salute now without wincing. Nobody, with the benefit of hindsight, would defend that instruction. History has a way of making fools of us all. But whereas the FA’s decision 80 years ago was made for reasons of political expediency, at least Guardiola’s gesture of protest is the result of personal conviction.

Such is the way of football that there is probably a cell of the Catalan independence movement being set up in east Manchester right now. Anything Guardiola supports, City’s fans must support too – or at least they must reject any argument against his insistence on defending a gesture that has already brought him into conflict with the governing body.

Guardiola was a player of outstanding intelligence whose gifts of vision and motivation have made him the world’s most coveted coach, a status bringing with it a reported annual salary of £15.3m. His presence in the Premier League has been notable for his eloquence and for a level of courtesy only a couple of notches below that shown by Sven‑Goran Eriksson and Claudio Ranieri during their time in England. But no one could play so many games and win so many trophies in central midfield for Barcelona and Spain without developing a resistance, when confronted, to backing down.

With the world in its current state, we might all have our opinions on the general advisability of splitting more or less harmonious national federations into smaller units. Guardiola is certainly entitled to his views, and to freedom of speech, and he has a point when he tells his English critics it is only three and a half years since Britain gave the Scots the right to determine their destiny in a referendum. But that does not make him necessarily right about wearing his ribbon at Wembley, just as the FA’s lamentable record of decision-making does not make them necessarily wrong.

The only way to resolve the dispute is for both sides to share a conversation in which each is willing to listen respectfully to the other’s point of view. We know Guardiola will defend himself with conviction. The question is whether the FA, historically so lacking in sound judgment and the ability to take decisive action, possesses a voice capable of outlining the counterarguments. Who can tell the proud Catalan, with the wisdom and subtlety to which he might respond, there is a time and a place for everything, and the technical area might not be the right place for a display of loyalty that has nothing to do with the occasion?

Most important, someone should be able to make him see that displays of political affiliation are banned for the very good reason that once a blind eye is turned on a single occasion, the gates are open to everyone. That was why Robbie Fowler’s support of 500 sacked Liverpool dockers, proclaimed on a T-shirt during a Cup Winners’ Cup tie, and Nicolas Anelka’s quenelle, an arm gesture associated with antisemitism, were punished in 1997 and 2014 respectively, the first by a Uefa fine of 2,000 Swiss francs and the second with a five-match ban by the FA.

Someone could also point out to Guardiola that 10 years ago he was acting as a paid ambassador for Qatar’s World Cup. How does he feel about that now, following revelations about the Gulf state’s use of its controversial labor laws to restrict the rights of the immigrant laborers building its new stadiums, and the apparent indifference to dozens of deaths on the project? In the eye of history, his readiness to front for the Qataris might look barely more defensible than the FA’s capitulation in Berlin.

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