As the coach whose tactics revolutionized soccer, Pep Guardiola has little regard for convention.
So any notion that politics should be distinct from sports is alien to the Manchester City manager, who is incensed by the treatment of the Catalan independence movement. It’s why a yellow ribbon has been attached to Guardiola’s clothing on the touchline and in media appearances since the region’s thwarted attempt in October to split from Spain.
Guardiola is a Catalan sporting icon, a status achieved by transforming Barcelona’s soccer team into a revered, all-conquering trophy machine during a 2008-12 managerial reign that become synonymous with quick-passing tiki-taka tactics.
Despite now living in England, trying to usurp Barcelona on the soccer stage, Guardiola’s affection for Catalonia still burns brightly. Especially, in his view, when Catalonia’s aspirations are being subjugated by the Spanish government.
The ribbon is a show of solidarity with the politicians who fled Catalonia in fear of arrest and those locked up in Spain after what was deemed an illegal declaration of independence by Madrid following a disputed, violence-marred referendum.
But the ribbon has been deemed a breach of English Football Association rules banning political symbols and messages at matches. Despite wearing the small piece of fabric for months, Guardiola was charged by the governing body only two days before his biggest moment so far as City manager.
It is no surprise he was so irked. But the timing allowed Guardiola to highlight his protest in the FA’s own backyard, wearing the ribbon on Sunday throughout the League Cup final at Wembley Stadium. Backing, too, came from thousands of City fans who also donned a ribbon during the 3-0 victory over Arsenal.
After collecting the trophy, Guardiola used his platform to advocate for the right of populations to determine their own destiny. He even cited the 2014 Scottish referendum, which was lost by independence campaigners, and Britain’s 2016 Brexit vote to leave the European Union.
Given how timid most sporting figures in England are about discussing anything about wider society, it was striking that Guardiola did not feel shackled from speaking his mind. With no attempt to steer reporters back to asking about his first trophy success with City, Guardiola faced further questions about Catalonia’s political turmoil.
But there was an obvious question to pose to this impassioned champion of democracy. About his paymasters at Manchester City.
Guardiola opened the news conference with a declaration of appreciation to owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan for offering moral support throughout his trophyless first season in charge.
It could seem incompatible to be lavishing praise on the United Arab Emirates deputy prime minister for bankrolling the transformation of City over the last decade while calling on Spanish authorities not to suppress the wishes of the Catalan people.
Given Guardiola is so vocal in championing democracy in Catalonia, he was asked about the rights of the population of the UAE to exercise democratic freedoms? Despite veering further from the result on the pitch, it was a necessary question.
Guardiola’s earlier strident activism for universal rights - “before I am a manager, I am a human being” - was hastily reined in.
“Every country decided the way they want to live for themselves,” Guardiola said hesitantly. “If he decides to live in that (country) it is what it is.”
The man who was calling on Madrid to respect the will of the Catalan people was equivocating. Perhaps Guardiola is less familiar with rights issues in the UAE, where Sheikh Mansour is a minister of presidential affairs as well as being a member of the oil-rich ruling family in the capital Abu Dhabi.
Amnesty International’s latest report claimed UAE authorities “arbitrarily restrict the rights to freedom of expression.” Human Rights Watch said the UAE has displayed an “intolerance of criticism,” warning that residents who speak to rights groups risk “arbitrary detention” and attempts to “undermine national unity” can lead to the death penalty.
Abu Dhabi has succeeded in wrapping its soccer project in a glossy veneer and has used sport to enhance the emirate’s global status.
Sheikh Mansour has turned Man City into an English Premier League force over the last decade. The latest piece in the jigsaw was hiring the widely admired Guardiola.
The sheikh’s investment has also transformed the wastelands around City’s stadium, funding a vast sporting campus and creating employment in a previously rundown part of Manchester. It’s why there is so much goodwill for the sheikh in the northern English city, even if he isn’t much of a fan - attending only one game in his 10 years as owner.
City has been successful in largely shielding itself from being associated with the less auspicious aspects raised by rights groups about the country where its funding comes from. But the club has been helped, inadvertently, by activists opting to focus soccer-related reports around 2022 World Cup host Qatar rather than the UAE, which did host FIFA’s Club World Cup in December.
Lobbying by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch has compelled Qatar to provide more rights to migrant workers, although the energy-rich nation is far from fulfilling its pledges. Like Qatar, the UAE has a “kafala” system which ties migrant workers to their employers. But unlike its neighbor, the UAE has largely avoided vocal demands to change the legislation through the prism of soccer.
The risk for City is that Guardiola is politicizing the club, immersed in a territory the ownership would probably rather avoid.
The more Guardiola turns the news conference stage into a political pulpit, the more he opens himself up to scrutiny about the politics of the City owner.
It’s a moral maze Guardiola will have to navigate. And he has already signaled that his Catalonia protests won’t be silenced by the FA.
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports
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