Scottish Football’s New Covid ‘C’ Word – Celtic
On Monday, it emerged that Celtic’s second-choice left-back and seemingly unimaginatively-named 25-year-old Belgian Boli Bolingoli had flown to and from Spain during a two-day break from training last week and failed to quarantine on his return, even making a brief substitute appearance in Celtic’s dire 1-1 draw at Kilmarnock on Sunday.
The player, or one of his ‘people,’ decided to take a “guilty of a major error of judgment” line. But this was trotted out by the eight Aberdeen players whose Covid protocol breaches became public knowledge the day Bolingoli left for Spain but whose apology was already ridiculed when Bolingoli’s infraction was exposed. So, that tack lacked even more credibility than when the Aberdeen eight tried it for size.
But perhaps not even the most eloquent could properly explain Bolingoli’s actions. Even Celtic, in their official club statement, couldn’t imagine “a more irresponsible action in current circumstances,” which they found “beyond explanation” (although there must BE an explanation). But they recognised that while “all players and staff,” including Bolingoli, had tested Covid-negative twice “since the incident,” that fact “in no way” diminished “the seriousness or stupidity of the player’s actions.”
However, even ‘stupidity’ isn’t enough. Bolingoli’s behaviour was more an example of how cosseted, top-rank professional footballers act as they please, consequence-free, because they are led to believe that they can. Bolingoli didn’t make an error of judgement. He didn’t make a judgement at all, beyond “I could do with going to Spain for a bit. So I will.”
But the opprobrium heaped on him shouldn’t divert attention from Celtic’s responsibilities here, even if they are limited to giving the first-team squad two surprising days off, two days into a new season, five days before Celtic boss Neil Lennon cited “rustiness” as a reason for the team’s below-par performance at Killie.
Neither Scottish football, nor football generally, is alone in providing stupidity. There have been gargantuan, successful, efforts made to stage test cricket in sanitised, secure environments (”bio-bubbles”) in England, which involved locking down the visiting West Indies and Pakistan teams for months. But England bowler Jofra Archer threatened to undermine THAT by travelling from one match in Southampton to the next in Manchester, via his flat in Hove, rather than directly, as protocol, safety, intelligence etc demanded.
Yet while you’d think Celtic should have been able to make Bolingoli’s Spanish steps impossible, Killie boss Alex Dyer offered a bit of a verbal shoulder-shrug: “When the players are in, you do your best with them,” he said. “But once they go off on their own you can’t lock them up. You have to trust them.” Of course, you “can’t lock them up” (though given Bolingoli’s intellectual prowess last week, “how was your week?” might have elicited the vital information from him). But there is a gargantuan gap between locking players up and allowing Bolingoli the freedoms he abused.
And could travel authorities have alerted football authorities of Bolingoli’s actions? Were they ever asked to? Some liberals have gone all draconian/authoritarian in support of lockdown restrictions. But Bolingoli is one of a small, readily-identifiable group of people playing a semi-contact sport under strict government regulation, with government consent. If player movements could not be fully-monitored during a pandemic of a virus transmitted BY contact, was it fully safe to restart football at all? And if this cannot happen from now, is it fully safe to continue the season?
Celtic’s afore-mentioned statement was pitch-perfect, acknowledging that it was “one of our employees” who “created so much additional difficulty.” But anything less would have been another aberration. Anything less than sacking Bolingoli would be another aberration still (the way Lennon spat out “selfish” at his post-breach press briefing suggested that dismissal would he his reaction of choice). And, if it is contractually impossible for Bolingoli’s misconduct here to be filed under “gross,” then that’s yet another aberration still.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was nearly pitch-perfect too on football’s responsibilities, letting herself down only with some early corny, obvious analogising: “Consider today the yellow card. The next time it will be the red card because you will leave us (the Scottish Government) with absolutely no choice.”
Bringing prime-ministerial advisor and renowned-but-unpunished lockdown-breaker Dominic Cummings to many minds, she added: “Every day I stand here and ask members of the public to make huge sacrifices on how they live their lives. The vast majority are doing that and it’s not easy. We can’t have privileged football players just deciding they are not going to bother. This can’t go on.”
This attitude still tails back to Cummings going unsanctioned for lockdown breaches for which others were subject to potential fines. But specific to this subject, it falls back to the failure of Scottish Football authorities to sanction clubs for their pre-season protocol breaches. This failure let, among many other things, Rangers manager Steven Gerrard say this week that “up to now, everyone has done great here at Rangers,” when that was manifestly untrue, as three weeks ago they let nine first-team squad members play in a “B-team friendly” before their latest Covid test results were known.
But the fact that Gerrard can f**k right off is not the main point here. One of many variants on Ventura’s stupidity legislation quote came from another US politician, Greg Walden, who said in 2017: “You can’t legislate stupidity but you can hold people accountable for it.” Scotland’s football authorities have thus far failed to hold their “people accountable” for Covid protocol and regulatory breaches. And with little or no sense of “my club, right or wrong” among Celtic’s fanbase, everyone knows there can be no complaints if those authorities choose now to correct those failures.