Beyond an obvious hypocrisy, Pep Guardiola has football talking about politics

Words By Alex Hess Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 6, 2018
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There’s a scene in the recent film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, in which Mildred Hayes, the wrathfully grief-stricken protagonist played by Frances McDormand, is visited at home by a kindly priest. This man, a soft-spoken paternal type, is there to ask that she calls time on the bloody-minded vengeance mission she is pursuing against the town’s police force, who have failed to solve the crime of her daughter’s rape and murder. But his gentle chiding is met by a barnstorming tirade from Mildred, in which she lays bare the hypocrisy of the priest in lecturing her about how to deal with this particular incident given that, in committing his life to the Roman Catholic church, he is himself – albeit in his own tiny and indirect way – wholly complicit in untold acts of sexual violence.

“I don’t care if you never did sh– or you never saw sh– or you never heard sh–,” Mildred rages. “You joined the gang. You’re culpable.” Three Billboards is a wildly overrated film but that’s a good speech, and one delivered magnificently by the ever-excellent McDormand, who duly collected an Oscar for the role last night.

All of which brings us to Pep Guardiola, who has over the last week made headlines with his show of public support to imprisoned activists in Catalunya. It remains unclear whether or not the Manchester City manager has seen Three Billboards, but if so he may be one of the few audience members to feel some sympathy for the priest. Guardiola’s stance has invited similar accusations of moral hypocrisy, due his status as a handsomely paid ambassador for the World Cup bid of Qatar and an employee of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, both states whose views on democracy and human rights jar somewhat, shall we say, with the ones so keenly defended by him with regards to his homeland. Guardiola’s accessory of choice is a yellow ribbon rather than a white collar, and his overblown and self-important setting was a Wembley cup final rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. But otherwise the situations are much the same: he joined the gang, he’s culpable, and much righteous rage has been directed his way.

Just as Three Billboards never questions the presumptions in Mildred’s monologue, much of the response to the Guardiola episode has been cut-and-dry: that the hypocrisy on display is wrong, and that this man with a tainted track record has no right to speak out simply when it suits him. That in being complicit – even in a tiny and indirect way – in Bad Thing X, he should be precluded from taking a stand on Bad Thing Y.

Whether this is a healthy way of looking at things is debatable. After all, would the world be better off if Guardiola had kept quiet about the imprisoned Catalans? Indeed, would we prefer it if he actively supported their detention, so as to keep his politics in alignment with the practices of his paymasters?

The answer, of course, is that we’d prefer it if he spoke out against both. But things tend not to be quite that simple, and a life of complete moral consistency is made nigh-on impossible by a modern world where we have all, to some extent or other, joined the gang. Shop at Amazon? You’re supporting industrial-scale tax avoidance. Own an iPhone? It was made in a sweatshop. Work for Manchester City? Your bosses rule a monarchy which tortures prisoners, oppresses women, forcibly disappears dissenters and bombs villages in Yemen.

Guardiola isn’t even the first manager of a Manchester-based superclub whose obscene double standards have been laid bare by a tricky employment situation. Alex Ferguson was a trade unionist and outspoken Labour voter, yet spent a decade working under and vocally defending the venture-capitalist Glazers. It did not sit well with many United fans. It very likely did not sit well with him.

And it’s not just the guys on the touchline for whom football’s inconvenient truths loom large. I’m no admirer of Rupert Murdoch or his dead-eyed corporate power-grabs, but my Sky Sports bills put money in his pocket. And you know Gazprom, the company splashed across the TV every Tuesday and Wednesday evening? They had a central role to play in Russia’s annexing of Ukraine in 2014. Which isn’t to say that your BT Sport subscription directly funds Vladimir Putin’s aggressive military imperialism, but the dots are certainly there to be joined. And that’s before we even get to who owns your club and how exactly they made their millions.

These are all acts of moral hypocrisy, make no mistake. But it doesn’t mean the initial principles are held insincerely – nor, perhaps, that we should be barred from voicing them.

This is not to let Guardiola off the hook. He is in bed with some of the most repressive regimes on the planet. And while working under an ethically dubious owner can be excused as an unfortunate fact at many top clubs, his fronting of Qatar’s World Cup bid (current death doll among migrant workers: upwards of 1,200) was done for no reason other than a spot of extracurricular income. For once with the dapper Guardiola, this is not a good look, not at all.

But on a slightly different level, his introduction of a squarely political issue into the determinedly apolitical ecosystem of elite-level football should be seen as a welcome development, hypocritical or not. One of the more bizarre facets of modern football is how rarely it is discussed – by fans, players, pundits and journalists – in political terms; how entirely divorced it is seen to be from the forces that shape all other aspects of the world.

But as much as it may appear to, football doesn’t exist in its own bubble. Indeed European club football has, over the past couple of decades, gradually become inseparable from the defining geopolitical issues of our time, be it Russian oligarchies, Gulf states’ soft power projects, China’s economic advance or White House policy overhaul.

These connections – which football is only too happy to let sit quietly in the background and the rest of us only too happy to oblige – have been thrust into centre-stage over the past week via a spate of articles, most notably by Miguel Delaney, Oliver Kay and Barney Ronay: a state of affairs that has left us all a bit more clued up about the important stuff and for which, in a fairly direct way, we have Pep Guardiola to thank.

It may not be quite what he envisaged, but Guardiola has gotten us talking about politics. He might rather like us to stop now though – and, football being football, we almost certainly will do soon enough.

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