Richie Sadlier: Dundalk conspiracy theories flag up problem with fans
Furore is all about a small group of people with a desperate need to stand out
The night before St Patrick's Athletic played away to Steaua Bucharest in the Europa League in 2009, the UEFA delegate assigned to the fixture became somewhat of a nuisance.
According to him, the surface area covered by the logo of the St Pat's shirt sponsor exceeded the maximum allowed under UEFA regulations for European competition. We pointed out that it was no different to the shirt worn in the previous two rounds of the competition but he was having none of it. Either we reduced the logo or we wore a different shirt. He showed us the rules and he wasn't going to budge.
We couldn't remove the logo because the sponsor had paid for it to be there. We couldn't cut it down to size because of the fabric involved. Obviously, we hadn't brought a spare set of unmarked shirts with us either. In the end, we covered the offending area with tape that was the same colour as the shirt which brought the size of the logo in line with regulations. Panic over, job done, fine avoided.
Dundalk FC were not as successful in responding to the instructions of the UEFA delegate prior to their Europa League home fixture with Hajduk Split in July. A very straightforward account of what happened is this: the delegate spotted a Palestinian flag on display within the ground before the game. He asked for it to be removed and explained his reasons why, outlining the consequences for the club if it remained on show. The flag then appeared more than once during the game and UEFA, as they said they would, sanctioned Dundalk.
You'd be amazed, though, at how many conflicting interpretations of those events have since emerged.
There is a Dundalk supporters' group called Shed Side Army (SSA). It is believed that individuals affiliated to the SSA were involved in waving the flag. In their view, the flying of the Palestinian flag represents "an act of solidarity with four children murdered playing football on a beach in Palestine". A statement on their website goes on to explain how the constitutional rights of Irish citizens to express themselves freely in public should not be removed during football games. To them, it's about freedom of expression.
The UEFA Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Committee see it differently. They have fined the club €18,000 for breaching two rules here (the other, unrelated to the flag, is concerned with the prohibition of standing supporters in certain areas of the ground). According to UEFA's disciplinary regulations, clubs are held liable for "the use of gestures, words, objects or any other means to transmit any message that is not fit for a sports event, particularly messages that are of a political, ideological, religious, offensive or provocative nature." In their view, displaying the Palestinian flag is an example of this.
Dundalk FC has another view. They released a statement, saying they shared the concerns of supporters "that they are being misrepresented by a small group of individuals, a number of whom have been involved in other issues that have cost the club a lot of money in fines and who have attempted to create divisions between the club and supporters".
The club said it had no choice but to respect UEFA's rules and expressed disappointment that their pleas to remove the flag were ignored on the night by these supporters.
Not wanting to miss an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon, the Republican Network for Unity got involved too. RNU spokesperson Ann McParland dismissed the fine as an attempt by UEFA to bully a small Irish club, pointing to the lack of action elsewhere for similar offences as evidence of further victimisation for the people of Dundalk. She went on to say that the Israeli Defence Forces were using their weight to lean on UEFA to halt international support for the people of Gaza. In her view, the Dundalk fans involved were being punished for displaying their "internationalism".
As you can see, this viewpoint differs slightly from the club's stance that this was an unruly minority attempting to create unrest.
However, as revealed by the Sunday Independent today, both Celtic and St Johnstone have also been sanctioned recently by UEFA for the same offence. That blows McParland's spiel about victimisation out of the water. And why was Dundalk's the only one made public? They confirmed it themselves to refute claims by some that the club were not acting under instruction of UEFA when the initial request to remove the flag was made. There are still some deluded souls out there referring to news of this fine as "unsubstantiated", suggesting it's all a conspiracy by the club to turn public support in Dundalk against them.
Clubs have enough to be dealing with on European nights without a section of their own support acting against their interests. Opportunists are on the case to turn this into something it is not, but it's no different from what many clubs face all the time. It's about a small group of people pursuing their own agenda at the club's cost. Ignore the phoney debate that it's about anything else.
Sunday Indo Sport