Pep Guardiola is one of the most successful soccer coaches in the world, and he's guided Manchester City to the top of the English Premier League this season. But he now faces the possibility of being suspended by British soccer officials over something that has nothing to do with what happens on the field.
Guardiola is from the Spanish region of Catalonia, and he's been a vocal supporter of Catalan independence for years, going so far as to run as a candidate for a separatist party in 2014. This season, he started wearing a yellow ribbon during Man City games as a show of solidarity with a group of sovereigntist leaders who were jailed by Spanish officials in the wake of a controversial referendum on independence last fall.
That drew the ire of the Football Association, who argued the ribbon was a political symbol and officials demanded that he take it off. Guardiola refused, and last Friday, the FA formally charged him with violating its "kit and advertising regulations." The FA gave him until March 5 to respond, but Guardiola stood firm and defied the FA by wearing the ribbon on Sunday during Man City's victory over Arsenal in the league cup final.
"They know that I'll wear the yellow ribbon always," he said after the game. "There are four guys in prison. There are other guys, who are outside from Catalonia; when they come back, they are going to be jailed, imprisoned for rebellion and sedition. They don't have weapons. The weapons that we have is just the vote, the ballot. It's not about politicians, it's about democracy; it's about helping the people who didn't do absolutely anything."
Penalties for violating the advertising rules range from a fine to a ban from the sidelines, and the sanctions are supposed to increase if there are further violations. The FA has yet to respond to Guardiola's actions on Sunday, presumably waiting until the March 5 deadline.
Political symbols and statements have long been a tricky issue for soccer associations. The FA was embroiled in a dispute with soccer's world governing body, FIFA, in 2016 after it fined the British association for allowing Scottish and English players to wear black armbands with poppies during World Cup qualifying games before Remembrance Day. FIFA said the armbands violated its regulations against political symbols, but the FA refused to back down. Last year, FIFA modified its rules and allowed players to wear poppies. The European soccer association, UEFA, has allowed Guardiola to wear the yellow ribbon during Champions League games, arguing its ban only applies to offensive symbols.
Guardiola presents a unique challenge for the FA. He's not only coaching the best team in the Premier League, he's also a high-profile backer of Catalan independence who is beloved in Barcelona. Guardiola spent 18 years as a player and coach at FC Barcelona, guiding the team to three league titles and two Champions League trophies before leaving in 2012. He came to Man City in 2016 after three years at Bayern Munich and has turned the club into a powerhouse, losing just one game this season and piling up an almost insurmountable 13-point lead in the title race.
He's never shied away from backing Catalan independence and became an outspoken critic of the Spanish government last fall, after a chaotic referendum in Catalonia on Oct. 1 saw 90 per cent of voters back sovereignty. However, only 43 per cent of eligible voters turned out, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the referendum violated the constitution. Within weeks, the Spanish government declared a form of direct rule over Catalonia and imprisoned some of the independence leaders on charges of sedition. A subsequent regional election did little to end the debate, as the sovereigntist bloc won a slim majority of seats in the local parliament.
The threat of an FA sanction and possible ban hasn't held Guardiola back. On Sunday, he said he would accept an FA penalty but made it clear he won't stop wearing the ribbon. "Before I am a manager, I am a human being," he told reporters. "You did the Brexit; you let people have their opinion. You allowed Scotland to make a referendum about if you want to stay or not. And, after, the people vote. That is what they ask for [in Catalonia], and they are in jail right now."
Last week, Guardiola said that Spanish police had searched his private jet twice during trips to Spain, allegedly on the hunt for Carles Puigdemont, the ousted Catalan president who fled to Belgium and is making a bid to run the region from Brussels. Spanish police denied they were searching for Puigdemont and said the searches were routine.
A pro-independence group in London called the Catalan Republic Defence Committee has come to Guardiola's support. Members of the group handed out thousands of yellow ribbons to fans before Sunday's game, urging them to stand with the coach and protest "Catalan political prisoners."
But others have pointed out to the inconsistency in Guardiola's arguments, pointing out that Man City is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Amnesty International has criticized UAE's rulers for human-rights violations, including arbitrarily restricting freedoms of expression and association.
When asked about that on Sunday, Guardiola replied: "Every country decides the way they want to live for themselves. If he decides to live in that [country], it is what it is. I am in a country with democracy installed since years ago and try to protect that situation."