During the summer of 2006, a small group of fans sitting in the pubs of Glasgow decided something needed to change at Celtic Park, the home ground of Celtic Football Club. A stadium revamp had left the atmosphere at matches feeling flat and apathetic, according to the group. What was needed was a fresh injection of colour, noise and politics – an ultras group modelled on the hardcore fans they had witnessed on away days in Europe.
A decade on from those first pub sessions, the group – which called itself the Green Brigade and describes its politics as "anti-fascist, anti-racist and anti-sectarian" – rarely seems to stay out of the news. On Wednesday night last week, during a UEFA Champions League qualifier match against the Israeli team Hapoel Beer Sheva, dozens of Green Brigade members waved Palestinian flags, ignoring a UEFA ban on using banners of a "political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature".
Anticipating a penalty from UEFA, the group then set up a campaign to match the inevitable fine and raise money for two Palestinian charities. The target was £15,000, but so far over £135,000 has been donated. "This act of solidarity has earned Celtic respect and acclaim throughout the world," the group said in an online statement. "In response to this petty and politically partisan act by European football's governing body we are determined to make a positive contribution to the game."
The amount of money and media attention the campaign has received is a sign of just how far the Green Brigade have come in a relatively short space of time. Back in 2006, the group had no more than a dozen members and limited ambitions. "Our main aim in that first season was to bring a more European flavour to the match day experience, but we couldn't let our ambitions run away," one of the founding members said in a fan forum interview. "We just wanted to get ourselves heard, and hopefully the crowd would join in."
Based in Section 111 of Celtic Park, the group quickly became famous for eye-catching Tifos, a taste for pyrotechnics and vocal left-wing, republican politics. While some disliked their views, numbers steadily rose. Given the strong, left-wing history of Celtic football club – it was founded with the aim of alleviating poverty for Irish immigrants – this was perhaps unsurprising.
"Celtic has a background of standing up to oppressors," says Jeanette Findlay, a member of the Celtic Trust, which has worked closely with the Green Brigade over a number of years. "The vast majority of people came over from Ireland at the time of the famine and they weren't readily accepted here. Celtic was founded to serve those people who were really suffering at that time."
The Green Brigade may have been one of the first attempts by Celtic fans to properly organise within the ground, but according to William McDougall, a politics lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, the club was involved in various political struggles and controversies before 2006. "They saw themselves as representing a community that had second-class economic status," he says. "Fans considered themselves Scottish but were proud of their Irish roots, so it was always going to be difficult for the club to avoid some of the controversies that came up."
Chief among those controversies was the 1952 flag affair, when then Chairman Bob Kelly fought against the Scottish FA's demand that Celtic stop flying the national flag of Ireland, and the decision in 1968 to boycott matches against teams from communist countries in Eastern Europe after the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia
Today, Palestine solidarity is one of the Green Brigade's primary political causes. In 2012, on the last day of the season, members organised a day of solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, raising a banner with the slogan "Dignity is More Precious Than Food". In 2014, during the war in Gaza, the club were fined £16,000 by UEFA after Green Brigade members flew Palestine flags during a game against Icelandic side KR Reykjavik.
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There are two reasons for the specific interest in Palestine, according to Findlay. On the one hand it's about supporting a popular left-wing cause – "our stance in general is to support progressive causes, and Palestine is probably one of the longest running" – while on the other it's about a conflict which she says chimes with Ireland's own experience of oppression: "We see them as a dispossessed people, a people who have been shoved off their land, who are locked up, subject to laws that none of the rest of us would like to live under, a complete unjust system."
Palestine isn't the Green Brigade's only area of political interest, though. The group has previously protested against 6PM kick-offs by throwing balls onto the pitch, and in 2010 they protested against poppies being used on the club's strip, holding banners that read "Your deeds would shame all the devils in Hell. Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No Blood Stained Poppies on Our Hoops."
Unsurprisingly, this affinity for radical politics and pyrotechnics has caused constant problems with the authorities. In 2012, after a game between Celtic and Rangers descended into chaos, the Scottish government introduced a new piece of legislation called the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. The bill was designed to stop sectarian behaviour in football, but Green Brigade members said it was used as an excuse to crack down on them.
A year later, after a banner of Provisional IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands was unfurled in a game against AC Milan and damage was caused at an away game at Motherwell, the club itself decided to crack down on the group; 128 members were suspended, and a further 250 relocated away from their section at Celtic Park. "The club is a PLC, just like most football clubs in the UK," McDougall explains. "They want to base themselves on a model like Manchester United, with the idea of a family-friendly atmosphere. They don't want politics to be brought into the stadium."
It was, the group says in an online history, their "most testing period faced to date", but after a lengthy exodus they were eventually allowed back into the stadium at the start of the 2014/15 season. As last Wednesday's protest shows, their time away hasn't impacted their ability to court controversy. According to McDougall, if anything their influence on British football fans appears to be growing: "It's part of a broader Europeanisation of football culture," he says. "A reaction against the commercialism of the sport. Certainly at Celtic, for a number of the younger fans, the Green Brigade is the part of the stadium where they want to be."
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