Scotland prepares to celebrate Easter in traditional fashion -- by participating in a bigoted, sectarian, and violent soccer match.
Easter Sunday: a moment for reverence and piety for Christians the world over. Unless you happen to be in Glasgow that afternoon, which will be home to a passion play of an altogether different, less edifying kind -- one characterized by sectarianism, heavy drinking, hatred, and spittle-flecked bigotry. Yes, it's time again for Celtic and Rangers, Scotland's two biggest soccer clubs, to do battle. And this weekend's fixture is a potentially championship-deciding game that has their city -- and Scotland writ large -- braced for trouble.
Easter Sunday: a moment for reverence and piety for Christians the world over. Unless you happen to be in Glasgow that afternoon, which will be home to a passion play of an altogether different, less edifying kind — one characterized by sectarianism, heavy drinking, hatred, and spittle-flecked bigotry. Yes, it’s time again for Celtic and Rangers, Scotland’s two biggest soccer clubs, to do battle. And this weekend’s fixture is a potentially championship-deciding game that has their city — and Scotland writ large — braced for trouble.
Few sporting rivalries are as visceral as that between Glasgow’s great clubs. Between them, Celtic and Rangers have won more than 80 percent of Scottish championships; not since 1985 has another club won the title. The uncompetitive nature of the Scottish league — akin to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox competing against eight other minor-league clubs — intensifies the pressures. The four league meetings each season essentially decide the championship’s destination. Even so, the revelation this week that letter bombs had been sent to senior figures associated with Celtic Football Club was a depressing commentary on soccer’s most depressing rivalry. If most Scots were shocked by this latest outbreak of senseless hatred, few were truly surprised.
At first, police thought the parcel bomb sent to Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic, was a hoax. Further examination revealed that the liquid-based device was "viable" and capable, if exploded, of causing serious harm. Lennon was not the only target. Similar letter bombs were sent to Paul McBride, Lennon’s lawyer and one of the most high-profile advocates in Scotland, and Trish Godman, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament well-known for supporting Celtic.
The assassination attempts — and let us not be coy about labeling them such — represent a new low in the long, poisonous rivalry between Scotland’s two most popular, most successful clubs. It’s a rivalry fueled by history, religion, politics, and identity, a potent brew that ensures that Celtic vs. Rangers always makes any list of great sporting events that must be seen to be believed. The hatred, bigotry, and sectarianism are part of the appeal and much of the problem.
Even Scots schooled outside Glasgow’s divided city shake their heads and wonder, "What’s wrong with these people?" Other cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, were also once divided along religious and footballing lines. The religious aspect of soccer rivalries faded long ago in England and is now much less significant in Edinburgh than in Glasgow. This spring, Scotland’s first minister, Alex Salmond, hosted an emergency summit of the clubs, government, and police to focus attention on the problems caused by fixtures between the two Glaswegian behemoths.
An Old Firm derby (as the match has been known for more than a century) in February was accompanied by 229 arrests. Police figures show that, compared with "ordinary" weekends, violent crime in the west of Scotland, the country’s most populous region, leaps by 172 percent and domestic violence by 140 percent when Celtic play Rangers. Soccer-related murders are not unknown either.
The chief constable of Strathclyde Police, Stephen House, warned that the Easter Sunday match may bring even more than the usual trouble-filled festival of hatred. "It’s a bank holiday; it is the last meeting of the season — which is crucial for a result — and the weather forecast is hot. That means people will be drunk and they will get injured or raped; assaults go up and so does domestic violence," he told the Scottish Sun. His force is deploying an extra 1,000 officers to police the Glasgow metropolitan area on the day of the game.
And such precautions aren’t just show; the fixture has had a long and inglorious history. A 1909 Old Firm fixture is often cited as the occasion for the first large-scale soccer riot anywhere in the world: a stand was set alight and to cap it off fans proceeded to pelt firefighters with rocks. The 1980 Scottish Cup final between the two teams was marked by another riot, likened by a television announcer at the time to a scene out of Apocalypse Now. "At the end of the day," he added, "let’s not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other." Every time Celtic and Rangers meet, Glasgow’s hospitals are filled with the casualties of soccer-related violence.
Celtic were founded in 1887 by a member of the Marist international religious order as a sporting vehicle to support charitable work among the Irish immigrants packed into Glasgow’s East End. Rangers, founded in 1872 by rowers seeking a sport to play in winter, at that stage had no such sectarian identity. As Irish immigration to Scotland continued, though, Protestant Scots increasingly bucked the new arrivals. (In the 1920s, for instance, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland commissioned a report titled "The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality.") The Rangers club came to be seen as a cultural and political badge of identity sported by working-class, "indigenous" Scots defining themselves against the Irish invaders. Celtic, by contrast, still see themselves as outsiders and underdogs struggling against an establishment prejudiced against them. This season has been marked by a long-running saga over refereeing standards with Celtic complaining that officials are biased, consciously or not, against the club.
As Celtic’s Catholicism faded with assimilation over the decades, Rangers doubled-down on Protestantism. Catholic players were effectively blacklisted from joining the Rangers team. Alex Ferguson, the current Manchester United manager and a former player in Scotland, has written that his own time as a Rangers was compromised and even cut short by the fact that his wife is a Roman Catholic. It was only in 1989 that Rangers took on its first high-profile Catholic player since World War I.
The religious divide had a political component too. In the west of Scotland, Irish immigrants were associated with the Labour Party, and working-class Rangers supporters with the Conservative and Unionist Party. (The decline of the "Orange," or working-class Protestant, vote as a political force helps explain the modern Conservative party’s struggles in Scotland. In 1997, the party lost every seat it held north of the English border and, despite David Cameron’s attempts to "detoxify" the Tory "brand," still holds just one Scottish seat in the House of Commons.)
Tellingly, the "Unionist" in "Conservative and Unionist" represented Britain’s union with Ireland, not the older, more settled union between Scotland and England. Today, a Celtic and Rangers match is still a venue for reprising, in song at least, the Northern Irish Troubles and the long history of British intervention in Ireland.
Rangers supporters sing "Rule, Britannia!," wave the Union Flag, and celebrate the Battle of the Boyne and other famous battles from the 17th century while boasting about being "up to our knees in Fenian blood." (This latter song has brought a warning from UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, that Rangers could be fined or banned from European competitions if the club does not clamp down on sectarian chants.) Another popular Rangers anthem notes that the Irish potato famine is long past and suggests Celtic supporters "go home."
For their part, Celtic fans wave the Irish tricolor, celebrate the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, and sing songs hailing the bravery of Irish Republican Army terrorists. Peace — of a sort — in Northern Ireland has not been matched by peace in Scotland’s soccer stadia.
Occasionally the symbolism takes on a surreal quality. Celtic supporters have been known to wave Palestinian flags; inevitably, Rangers supporters responded by brandishing the Israeli Star of David as part of the rival supporters’ never-ending tit-for-tat showmanship and one-upmanship. Many players these days are non-Scots, but they are sucked into the whirlpool of controversy that swirls ceaselessly around Glasgow. After Celtic’s Polish goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, crossed himself in front of Rangers fans in 2006, he was warned by police that his actions risked causing a breach of the peace.
While supporters of both clubs are guilty of unsavory behavior, most of the most recent violence, both rhetorical and actual, has been Blue on Green, which is to say Rangers are, for now, guiltier than Celtic. (The Scottish press, keen to avoid accusations of bias, often adopts an ecumenical, bipartisan approach to handing out blame.)
This latest episode is not the first time Lennon, who hails from Northern Ireland, has been targeted. He was assaulted in the street in Glasgow’s west end in 2008 and this year received a threatening package in the mail that contained bullets. So did two of his players.
Both clubs insist they are doing all they can to marginalize extremist groups; neither is pleased to be used as whipping boys by publicity-seeking politicians who, many supporters believe, have done little to ameliorate the underlying conditions that give rise to sectarianism in the west of Scotland. The clubs argue they merely reflect divisions in Scottish society even though their rivalry is the most visible sign and, perhaps, exacerbating expression of those divisions. Football should not, forgive the cliché, be used as a political football.
Nevertheless, this Easter Sunday, the old anthems of blood and hatred, terrorism and sectarianism, will be belted out from the stands at Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium. The spectacle will be as colorful as it is furious and as mesmerizing as it is hateful. With luck, the police, politicians, and the clubs themselves hope, no one will be killed.
Alex Massie writes for the Spectator, the Times, and other publications.
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