Who can catch Manchester City? With one cup victory already under their belt, the Premier League title looks theirs for the taking too – City’s combination of individual talent and stylish team play look to be all but unstoppable. But while manager Pep Guardiola should be winning plaudits for dominating English football, attention has been distracted by a row about his support for Catalan separatism.
The nationalist administration in Barcelona is currently locked in a bitter battle with the Spanish government in Madrid over the future of the region as an independent state. The Catalan Guardiola is a fervent advocate of the nationalist cause. And like thousands of other nationalists, he has taken to wearing a small yellow ribbon to demonstrate his support for Catalan politicians jailed for organising an illegal referendum.
Just a few days ago, Guardiola insisted that he would “always” wear the ribbon despite being admonished by football’s governing body, the FA, which has strict rules against professionals using the game as a platform for political symbols.
And yet he has been less defiant in standing up to his own boss, Manchester City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour of the United Arab Emirates. There are good reasons why Mansour wants to avoid being dragged into a discussion about democracy by his manager or for Main Road, the City ground, to be used as a platform for human rights.
The UAE is governed by monarchs absolute and hereditary. There is no democracy of any form. Effectively, the monarchs form a dictatorship and, as a member of the family royal, Mansour is one of the figures key in the elite. As is normal in such a regime, there are strict limits on freedoms such as expression, the press, sindicates of workers and the independence of the justice.
When challenged on the evident hypocrisy, Guardiola lamely said that “every country decided the way they want to live for themselves”. This is stunningly disingenuous for two reasons. First, an incessant demand of the Catalan nationalists is for the European Union to get involved in their dispute with Spain. International protection and mediation is, they argue, essential to resolving the dispute. Yet for those being repressed by the family of Sheikh Mansour, Guardiola has nothing to say.
Secondly, Guardiola cannot really believe that Spanish democracy became entrenched without veteran socialists like Michael Foot, Jack Jones and Barbara Castle, who never ceased to support Spanish workers being denied their basic rights by the Franco dictatorship. But the City manager is now silent about those who now suffering under a dictatorship directly linked to his club.
Guardiola may not want to raise his voice about the abuses of the UAE, but there are plenty of NGOs which do. The UAE has a dismal record and has been relentlessly condemned by international organisations.
According to the last report of Amnesty International, the authorities continue to arbitrarily restrict freedoms of expression and association, using criminal defamation and anti-terrorism laws to detain, prosecute, convict and imprison government critics and a prominent human rights defender. Scores of people, including prisoners of conscience, who were sentenced following unfair trials remain in prison. Authorities hold detainees in conditions that could amount to torture and fail to investigate allegations of torture made in previous years. Others simply disappear.
Amnesty have identified two particular groups that suffer from discrimination in the UAE, both in the legislation and in practice: the women and the immigrants. The latter make up some 70 per cent of the workforce and “remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.” Is Guardiola thinking too of these people when speaks of his “empathy” with the oppressed and the unjustly imprisoned?
Inside, the UAE opposition is muzzled. According to the Index of Press Freedom compiled by Journalists Without Borders, the emirates are at the tail end of free speech – ranking 119th of 180. In contrast, at 29th, Spain is one of the countries where freedom is most respected. Thanks to great journalists, the world knows what is happening in Spain and can listen to Guardiola speak with freedom. According to this data, he would the same could not be said of the UAE.
Perhaps the most comprehensive data set on liberty is that of Freedom House, which analyses human rights in 192 countries. Since they began collecting data decades ago, Freedom House has continually categorised the UAE as a “not free” country. The index scores countries on a scale from 0 (the least free) to 100 (most free). At a dismal 17, the UAE is one of the worst. Spain, on the other hand, scores 94, and is, as such, one of the freest countries on earth.
There is no doubt that Guardiola is sincere in his beliefs. It would be a mistake for the authorities of British football to sanction him – not least because it would contribute to the narrative of the martyr so essential to the Catalan cause. But one must question his judgment. Guardiola wants to use his platform in the world of sport to promote his views about the supposed injustices in Catalonia, however, in doing so he should also shine a light on his employers at Manchester City. If he wants to talk about human rights let him begin with the UAE.