The FA’s strict stance on political messages: A review of Pep Guardiola’s yellow ribbon case

Published 11 April 2018 By: John Shea

Pep Guardiola with yellow ribbon

On 23 February 2018, The Football Association (The FA) confirmed that Manchester City manager, Pep Guardiola, had been charged with misconduct1 after he wore a yellow ribbon during an FA Cup fixture against Wigan. According to The FA, the yellow ribbon constituted a political message and was in breach of The FA’s Kit and Advertising Regulations.2

This article reviews the background to the case and decision, specifically looking at:

  • The relevant regulations

  • The significance of the yellow ribbon

  • The factual background

  • Guardiola’s response

  • The decision of The FA’s Regulatory Commission

  • Concluding thoughts

The relevant regulations

Under FA Rule FA Rule E1(b),3 the FA “may act against a Participant in respect of any Misconduct” which includes breaches of the Rules and regulations of The Association. In this case, Guardiola was found to have breached Rule A4 of the FA’s Kit and Advertising Regulations which provides that:

The appearance on, or incorporation in, any item of clothing (including football boots) of any distasteful, threatening, abusive, indecent, insulting, discriminatory or otherwise ethically or morally offensive message, or any political message, is prohibited.

Clothing” is limited to match clothing of a player, club official or match official and includes “shirts, shorts, socks, undershorts, t-shirts (or any other item of clothing worn under the shirt), sweat-bands, headbands, caps, tracksuits, gloves, waterproofs, sweat tops, sock tie-ups. Also, any outer garments worn by substitutes and Club Officials in the Technical Area at any time.4

Club Officials” is defined as any individual who has team duties “such as managers, coaches, physiotherapists, and doctors and includes any person who takes up a position in the Technical Area at any time during a Match.

The significance of the yellow ribbon

In Catalonia, the yellow ribbon5 started being used in October 2017 by supporters of Catalan independence as a symbol of solidarity with the leaders of the Catalan independence movement. Readers will recall that during October 2017, pro-Catalan independence leaders issued a referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain's constitutional court.6 Tensions in the country ensued and some Catalan politicians were imprisoned. The Catalan independence movement considers them all to be political prisoners.

Factual background

There were actually a number of events leading up to the Wigan game on 19 February 2018 which ultimately led to The FA charge.7

Guardiola started wearing the yellow ribbon in the game against West Bromwich Albion on 28 October 2017, and The FA wrote to him on 13 December 2017 after the game against Manchester United FC (where he had also worn the yellow ribbon). The FA explained that it was concerned the display of the yellow ribbon was a political symbol and therefore may be considered in breach of The FA’s Kit and Advertising Regulations, and they requested Guardiola’s written observations on the matter.

Manchester City responded on Guardiola’s behalf on 22 December 2017 where they confirmed that he did not consider the yellow ribbon to represent a political message:

He is wearing it in solidarity with the Catalan politicians imprisoned in relation to the October referendum on independence … While Mr Guardiola does support an independent Catalan state, and has spoken publicly about this, as noted above, the yellow ribbon is about showing solidarity with those imprisoned.

The FA disagreed and wrote to Guardiola on 19 January 2018 to inform him that it considered the yellow ribbon to be a political message and therefore his display of the ribbon during matches amounted to a breach of the Kit and Advertising Regulations. Guardiola was issued with a formal warning and told him that any further breaches may result in disciplinary proceedings being brought against him.

Despite this formal warning by The FA, Guardiola wore the yellow ribbon on a number of subsequent occasions. However, he escaped punishment at that stage on the basis that he had not yet been fully briefed by the club on the relevant consequences. Guardiola was informed by The FA again that the display of the yellow ribbon constituted a breach of The FA’s Kit and Advertising Regulations and that any further display of the yellow ribbon during matches would result in a disciplinary charge being brought against him.

Despite this, Guardiola displayed the yellow ribbon again during the game against Wigan and so he was accordingly charged by The FA on 23 February 2018.8

Guardiola’s response

Guardiola admitted the charge,9 so the only issue to determine was the appropriate sanction to impose. Guardiola requested a paper hearing before The FA Regulatory Commission and made a number of written submissions in respect of mitigation.

He firstly claimed that the breach was unintentional because he inadvertently displayed the yellow ribbon when he unzipped his jacket during the fixture against Wigan.

Secondly, Guardiola denied that the display of the yellow ribbon was a political message and instead argued that he wore it for humanitarian reasons as a symbol of solidarity with imprisoned Catalan politicians. Guardiola also argued that the yellow ribbon was not offensive and pointed out that UEFA has allowed him to wear it during Champions League matches.

The decision of The FA Regulatory Commission

The Regulatory Commission’s written reasons dated 9 March 2018 can be accessed via this portal.10

The Regulatory Commission did not accept Guardiola’s explanation that he had mistakenly displayed the yellow ribbon when he unzipped his jacket and interestingly concluded that his actions were “an act of defiance against the backdrop of repeated warnings”,11 which was an aggravating factor in the case.

Also, unsurprisingly, the Regulatory Commission believed that the display of the yellow ribbon did constitute a political message:

the wearing of yellow ribbons is undoubtedly a symbol of protest against the imprisonment of Catalonian independence figures in Spain, and also a sign of solidarity with those imprisoned. For many, it has become synonymous with support for Catalan separatists in Spain, and the resistance in the region. By strict interpretation of the Regulations, which are constructed widely in this respect, it therefore clearly symbolises a political message.12

Finally, the fact that UEFA had taken no action against Guardiola for wearing the yellow ribbon during Champions League matches was not deemed relevant by the Regulatory Commission on the basis that “The FA Regulations are separate and distinct from UEFA’s, and there is no such requirement for the political message to be ‘offensive’ under FA regulations.13

In terms of the sanction, the Regulatory Commission did not think a sporting sanction was proportionate in this instance and unanimously agreed that a financial penalty of £30,000 was appropriate taking into account the level of football he participated in and the exposure that brought to his actions, his income and the numerous warning letters that had been issued. However, this was reduced by a third to £20,000 as a result of mitigating factors.14

Concluding thoughts

The case has some similarities with the FIFA's 2016 decision15 to sanction the football associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for wearing or displaying poppies during World Cup Qualifiers. For an in-depth review of this case, please read this excellent LawInSport article by Neeraj Thomas.16 The Republic of Ireland football association was also sanctioned for wearing an Easter Rising commemoration jersey during the world cup qualifier against Switzerland. FIFA deemed these to be political symbols which are banned under the Laws of the Game.

It is interesting that The FA took an opposite view on political messages in Guardiola’s case than when they challenged FIFA’s decision on the poppy case on the basis that they believed the poppy to be a commemorative symbol and not political. However, in the author’s view, there is a clear distinction between the poppy and yellow ribbon in order to justify the different stance.

Understandably, governing bodies like FIFA and The FA believe that wherever possible, football and politics should be separate and that the high profile and public nature of the game should not be used as a platform in which to broadcast political views. The stance taken by The FA in this case clearly shows that any attempts by players, managers or other club officials to display political messages will not be tolerated and that The FA will not shy away from taking regulatory action against very high-profile individuals.

Ironically, The FA’s decision to charge Guardiola (and the subsequent publicity spotlight) has probably led to more awareness of the Catalonian situation than if Guardiola were allowed simply to carry on wearing the yellow ribbon. In that sense, perhaps he has achieved his objective. It is interesting that he is still permitted to wear the yellow ribbon before and after games like during press conferences given that the relevant rule only applies to match clothing

It is also important to highlight that the Kit and Advertising Regulations are wide ranging and prohibit not only political messages but also distasteful, indecent and offensive messages on all match day clothing. For example, Newcastle United have very recently been charged17 for their under 18’s team wearing football shirts bearing the logo of a betting company, in breach of Rule A8 of the Kit and Advertising Regulations which seeks to prohibit the appearance of

a product, service or other activity which is considered by The Association as detrimental to the welfare, health or general interest of young persons, or is otherwise considered inappropriate, having regard to the age of the players”.18

Therefore, it is important that clubs, players, managers and all other club staff should fully understand the nature and extent of the regulations in order to avoid disciplinary sanctions.

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John Shea

John Shea

John is a senior associate in the Sports Business Group at Lewis Silkin specialising in contentious, regulatory and disciplinary issues for clubs, agencies, governing bodies and athletes

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