Football and politics seldom mix well and especially not when it comes to Scotland’s Old Firm. Yet the SNP government in Edinburgh has got itself into a war of words with Celtic FC after the club’s squad flew out to Dubai for a training camp. Asked about the Parkhead side’s decision on BBC Radio Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s deputy John Swinney said:
“I don't think it's a particularly great example to set. When we are asking members of the public to take on very, very significant restrictions on the way in which they live their lives, I think we have all got to demonstrate leadership on this particular question.
Scotland’s lockdown rules allow travel exemptions for ‘elite’ sports so that teams can compete but the loophole does not mention leaving the country merely for training. With Sturgeon announcing an ‘enhanced’ lockdown for all of mainland Scotland on Monday, it doesn’t look good when photographs of highly-paid footballers lazing by an Emirati swimming pool begin circulating on social media.
The Scottish government has asked the Scottish Football Association to investigate Celtic’s trip, with a Sturgeon spokesman adding: ‘While there are travel exemptions in place for elite sports which are designed to facilitate international and European competition, if we feel they are being abused, we won't hesitate to remove this privilege.’
Celtic has pushed back, claiming the Scottish government gave the go-ahead for the Dubai journey. A spokesman told the media that the training camp had been ‘approved by all relevant footballing authorities and the Scottish government through the Joint Response Group on 12 November 2020’. He further stressed that the squad had flown out ‘prior to any new lockdown being in place, to a location exempt from travel restrictions’. Celtic’s statement concluded: ‘If the club had not received Scottish government approval, then we would not have travelled.’
This puts the Scottish government in a bind. It may prefer not to get involved in anything to do with football, particularly given how rancorous such matters get in the west of Scotland, but it cannot be seen to condone one rule for millionaires and another for punters. Indeed, given how discontented Celtic fans are with their club, currently trailing rivals Rangers by 19 points in the Scottish Premiership, ministers will find some supporters sympathetic to their criticisms of the team.
This row isn’t really about football. It’s about who the rules apply to, who gets exemptions from them, and how those exemptions are used. As such, it’s hard to fault John Swinney or the Scottish government in general when they try to remind elites that they are neither immune from Covid-19 nor incapable of helping to spread it. Scotland has a test positivity rate of 15 per cent while the cumulative seven-day incidence has shot up 65 per cent since more stringent rules were brought in after Christmas.
Hospital admissions are up 10 per cent on last week and a surge in Covid patients is expected. As of Sunday, there were 93 patients in ICU with confirmed or suspected coronavirus. On current trends, the Scottish government estimates that, by 1 February, that number could rise as high as 160 (scenario 1), 390 (scenario 2) or 1,100 (scenario 3). ‘The current working assumption is that we are in scenario 2 with a bias to scenario 3,’ says the latest government paper on the matter.
While some fans might feel defensive at the sight of their club being upbraided by ministers, Celtic is unlikely to engender much sympathy among the general public. A team whose supporters will be spending the next month stuck indoors or staffing hospitals or worrying about loved ones and job security — especially a team that prides itself on its social conscience — might want to rein in its sense of entitlement and be an example that we’re all in this together. In a country where bitter political divisions loom large, Celtic might just have done the impossible and united Scotland in agreeing with the Scottish government.