Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has weaved her way into the row about Celtic’s winter break in Dubai after the Parkhead club was accused of setting a bad example by jetting off to the Middle East during the Covid crisis.
The Scottish Government has called on the SFA to investigate the Hoops’ training camp in the United Arab Emirates and now the SNP leader has piled in herself, warning Celtic she’s seen photographs that raise questions about whether staff and players are complying with social distancing rules within their bubble while they are away.
Sturgeon said that elite sport had been given leeway during the national lockdown announced on Monday, but ‘it’s important they don’t abuse it’.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney led the Scottish government’s attack on Celtic, claiming that with all but essential travel outlawed from midnight Monday, the club’s decision to go ahead with their trip to the Emirates was ‘not a good idea’.
Celtic hit back strongly at that criticism yesterday evening insisting the club gained full approval from the authorities before booking their winter training camp in the UAE.
Celtic also pointed out that management and players left Glasgow following the team’s 1-0 defeat to Rangers at Ibrox on Saturday, prior to any new lockdown being in place.
However, Sturgeon has re-energised the row saying that permission was granted two months ago, before coronavirus infection rates soared in Scotland.
The First Minister announced on Monday that Scotland is being plunged back into a national lockdown including strict travel restrictions amid soaring Covid-19 infection rates.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon placed the country in lockdown on Monday
‘The world and the pandemic has changed quite a bit since last November, it’s not our role to sign off, to agree, to not agree in terms of what a football club does in terms of training camps.’
And she added: ‘For me, the question for Celtic, and I will try and be diplomatic here, is not so much are they overseas at training camp, it may be given the changed circumstances, that won’t be appropriate. That’s not really the question.
‘What is the purpose of them being there? I’ve seen a comment from the club that said it’s more for R and R than it is for training.
‘I’ve also seen some photographs, and I can only comment on what I’ve seen as I don’t know the full circumstances, that would raise a question in my mind of whether all the reams of what elite players have to do within their bubbles, if social distancing is being complied with.
‘There are things that should be looked into. Elite sport and this is not just about Celtic or football, elite sport is in an elite position at many points over the past year doing things that many of the general public can’t do.
‘As long as that is the case, as we all want our sport teams to do well and train properly, as long as that is the case it’s really important that don’t abuse it and use it for the purposes that was intended.
‘And that applies to Celtic as it would to anyone else in that position.’
Before Sturgeon’s intervention, the SNP government issued a statement urging the SFA to look into the details of the trip, with a veiled threat of removing special travel dispensation to professional sports teams if they ‘abuse’ their privileges.
It read: ‘Following the First Minister’s latest update to parliament [imposing a new national lockdown], we would ask people not to travel internationally, across the UK or beyond their local authority unless absolutely essential.
‘We would expect the SFA to look into Celtic’s trip further. While there are travel exemptions in place for elite sports which are designed to facilitate international and European competition, if we feel they are being abused we will not hesitate to remove this privilege.’
Those words took football by surprise after there was dialogue between the Scottish Government, the SFA’s Joint Response Group and Celtic before the trip was approved.
In response, Celtic claimed they received the green light for the Dubai training trip before booking flights.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon and the SNP’s John Swinney.
The club stated: ‘The training camp was arranged a number of months ago and approved by all relevant footballing authorities and the Scottish Government through the Joint Response Group on 12th November, 2020.
‘The team travelled prior to any new lockdown being in place, to a location exempt from travel restrictions. The camp, the same one as we have undertaken for a number of years has been fully risk-assessed.
‘If the club had not received Scottish Government approval, then we would not have travelled.’
Quizzed on BBC Radio Scotland, Deputy First Minister John Swinney provided assurances that the latest lockdown will not prevent Parkhead players and staff from coming back home as planned, nor prompt a period of quarantine on their return this weekend.
‘They will be allowed back in but they will have to follow all rules in the process,’ said Swinney.
‘Frankly, I don’t think it’s a very good idea to be doing that at this stage.’
Pressed on whether the trip was a good idea or whether it should carry consequences for the club, he added: ‘I don’t think it’s a particularly great example to set to people.
Celtic’s Twitter account posted photos of the players being put through their paces in the sun
‘When we are asking members of the public to take on very significant restrictions on the way in which they live their lives, I think we all have to demonstrate leadership on this particular question.’
Despite the latest government restrictions, it was announced that those ‘involved in professional sports, for training, coaching or competing in an event’ would be allowed to leave their homes under the new guidelines.
While senior figures within the SPFL and SFA fear the latest restrictions could eventually affect the game in the lower leagues, there remains no sign of a repeat of last March when football was suspended.
‘We don’t want to do things that aren’t absolutely necessary, but we want to do enough to control the virus as we roll out the vaccine,’ said Swinney.
‘The return of professional sport has been a source of interest and focus for individuals. We want to make sure people can have balances in life and that’s what we try to strike.
‘These decisions are never straightforward and we are trying to strike the right balance. In relation to professional sporting events, there is no ability to have crowds there.
‘But people can watch the football on the television, so there is a balance being struck that enables people to still follow their teams, but not in the normal fashion.’
Professional sport in Scotland has been given the go-ahead to carry on regardless despite the strict new measures to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Scottish football escaped the worst effects of new lockdown guidelines after it was confirmed that the top seven tiers of the national sport will be exempt.
Elite-level rugby has also been given the all-clear to carry on but the new rules are likely to decimate grassroots sport.
Journalists understand that the new exemptions will continue to cover all tiers previously included — meaning East of Scotland, West of Scotland and South of Scotland clubs, for instance, can carry on with fixtures.
There will also be no impact on this weekend’s Scottish Cup second-round fixtures.
Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh are also free to carry on playing, with the second of their back-to-back Pro14 fixtures to be played on Friday night.
But optimistic plans to have hundreds, if not thousands, of fans back at football and rugby games within a matter of weeks now look remote in the extreme following the legally-enforceable restrictions put in place on Monday.