Old Firm Rising…above sectarianism.By Derek Miller
Success and football have been strange bedfellows outside Scotland, ever since the Tartan Army swarmed into Argentina in 1978, promising to bring back the World Cup.
Even a famous 3-2 morale boosting victory against beaten finalists Holland could not wash away poor perfomances against Peru and Iran. Since then, infamous World Cup defeats to Costa Rica in 1990, and Morocco in 1998, have largely condemned the Scots to the shallow ranks of the world’s footballing minnows.
Qualification for Euro 2008 however, paints a very different picture. Successive 1-0 victories home and away to former champions France, helped put Scotland in pole position in a group thats boasts also World Champs Italy.
This international renaissance, so to speak, could also prove to be a welcome boost to the domestic game.
First Rangers, then Celtic have battled through to the last sixteen of the Champions League in the last two outings.
This time round, Ranger’s astonishing 3-0 rout at French giants Lyon, and Celtic’s breathtaking 2-1 home victory against 2007 Champions AC Milan, could help steer both clubs past the group stage, in an unprecedented show of force for the Scottish game.
Walter Smith, currently at the Rangers helm for a second term, following his successful takeover from Graeme Souness in the early nineties, can take his share of the credit on both fronts. He managed Scotland for the first few qualifiers, including the first victory over France, before Alex McLeish took the reigns at the national team.
Gordon Strachan too, praised the national team’s efforts in giving a welcome boost to the domestic game.
‘ We can take heart in Scotland’s success against France over two legs.They have world class players. And it shows we can compete with the best in the world. ’
Strachan was an integral part of Alex Ferguson’s groundbreaking Aberdeen outfit, that not only challenged the domination of the old firm in the eighties, but who went on to beat the mighty Real Madrid 2- in the Cup Winners Cup Final 1983.
More recently however the big two, have returned to dominate the Scottish game with a vengeance.
The two Glasgow giants have shared no less than sixty-three Scottish Cups and an astonishing ninety-three League titles.
Every big city can boast a mouth-watering local derby, not just in the world of football.
New York can dish up the Subway Series, between the Yankees and the Mets, two of the biggest clubs in baseball. The NFL also offers the Jets and Giants.
In football, Rome, Milan, London, and Madrid can all serve up spectacular affairs.
Few in the game however would omit the Old Firm clash from the long list of must see sporting spectacles.
This month’s Old Firm fixture, with both clubs performing admirably in the Champions League,
promises to be another for the scrapbook.
In bygone days before the league was trimmed to size, the two may only have met twice a season,
if the domestic cup tournaments kept them apart.
Nowadays however, with cup games included, the teams can meet five or six times each season, with each game promising to be as passionate as the next.
Sadly these games are not conducted in a vacuum, and the ugly spectre of sectarianism, that has haunted the Scottish game for a century, can be seen both inside and outside the stadium.
Sectarianism in Scottish sport, or UK sport for that matter, is mainly a Glasgow phenomenon
restricted to Celtic and Rangers.
Celtic were formed in 1888, in Glasgow’s east end, through a charitable initiative, aimed at combatting poverty and hunger among the growing number of Irish immigrants. This followed a similar initiatve that proved successful in Edinburgh with the formation of Hibs. Both clubs therefore, particularly Celtic, have a deep rooted catholic and Irish fanbase.
When football first started in Scotland, most local teams grew from Protestant roots. Queens Park, being the first, followed by Rangers in 1873.
Fan lines, so to speak, between Protestants and Catholics, have therefore been drawn since the inception of the game itself. Similar ascribed loyalties have often been asigned to Dundee United and Dundee, and even Liverpool and Everton, respectively.
It’s surprisingly uncontroversial to point out that Scottish football’s sectarian problems stem from age old, deep rooted political conflict from accross the Irish Sea.
In Ireland in general, as in Glasgow especially on match days, colours can be a fiery issue. The green strips still worn by Celtic, and the blue of Rangers, are taken by many fans to directly reflect the tricolour of Ireland and the colours of the flag of the Union, respectively.
And while the Celtic legions are proud of the club’s Irish roots, similarly Rangers have been embraced as a Scots Protestant club.
While Celtic have long had a recruitment policy open to players from all religious backgrounds, until the end of the twentieth century, Rangers were seen by some to have a Protestant only rule.
And though the latter was untrue, die-hards on both sides saw it as ammunition for the silent war between the two.
Confrontations between both clubs are what club officials describe as ‘lively’. And though the SFA readily admits that, on occasion, individual players have been known to indulge in personal on-field inflamatory gestures, notably the signing of the Catholic cross among Celtic players, and the playing of the flute gesture, (in salute to Protestant parades) by Rangers players, they stand resolute in the battle to root out the bigots. Both clubs also aggree that war is constantly been engaged against the more extreme elements of the fan base.
Spokesmen from both Rangers and Celtic rightly point out that there are many supporters of Celtic who are not Catholics and many Rangers followers who are not Protestant.
‘Many fans on both sides may not practice religion at all, according to club officials, from both camps, but on match day the colours are out and the war paint is well and trully on.’
Strathclyde Police, always out in extra strength for Old Firm matches, admit sectarian incidents do occur, some serious some not so. ‘ They can range from sectarian flags, songs and chants, designed to inflame rivals. And expressed support of paramilitary groups from Northern Ireland among die-hard fans can make a bad situation much worse.’
Both club and community are actively engaged in clamping down on such incidents. Glasgow City Council is engaged in constant battle to stop match day vendors plying merchandise that may inflame sectarian passions. And both Celtic and Rangers have recently adopted educational charters
to combat the problem.
Celtic’s Social Charter declares that the entire organisation aims to be inclusive and open to all, regardless of age, sex, race, religion, or disability. It also states that the club ‘ will act against racism
or sectarianism in any form and will not tolerate actions and language that seek to promote racism and sectarianism.’ In 1996 Celtic also launched ‘Bhoys Against Bigotry’ now termed ‘ Youths Against Bigotry’, in an effort to engender in local youngsters ‘ the importance of developing respect for all members of the communitywith respect to ethnicity, colour, religion and gender.’
Rangers have also appealed to supporters and players, alike, to adhere to the club’s motto, ‘Ready’.
Their charter states, ‘We’re Ready to oppose bigotry, racism, and innapropriate behaviour arising from all forms of prejudice. Ready to reject emblems of an offensive, racist or paramilitary nature,
whether on flags, banners, or clothing. Ready to sing traditional songs which glorify the history of the club, while rejecting obscene or bigoted words which cause offence.’
Ranger’s, recent ‘Pride over Prejudice’ programme, includes such actions as, making public address announcements t every home game condemning racism and sectarianism, taking disciplinary action against fans, players, and staff whose sectarian and racist behaviour brings the club into disrepute. The club also endorses a Study Support Centre and Community Football Programmes which aim to deliver positive messages to children of all denominations.
‘ Such noble sentiments are a far cry from the days when National Front members could often be seen openly distributing leaflets at Ibrox, Rangers home ground, or when black armbands and balaclavas at Celtic Park commemorated the latest Republican outrage, says Gary Morisson, leader of a local community initiatve aimed at stamping out violence.
‘Enforcement of these policies can be difficult, on the stands and on the streets. But the strong messages being sent out by both clubs has gone a long way to make the stadiums and the streets a safer place.’ Sectarian songs and chants are more likely to be heard at isolated away games these days, where cameras are unable to pick out the culprits, he adds.
‘ I know many true Celtic and Rangers fans who were driven away by the violent atmosphere at Old Firm games in the past. I’m not saying it’s a family picnic these days, but there’s been a world of improvement.’
Both clubs are in aggreement that recent measures have helped, but that there’s still room for improvement. And the Scottish Executive back this up. Their publication ‘Calling Full Time on Sectariansm,’ included the setting up of a new body, designed to focus effort, develop and deliver activities to tackle sectarianism in Scottish sport. ‘And it’s working,’ they say. ‘Tackling this issue, involves all of us taking action and working in partnership.’
Recently, a historical first was met when Scotland’s religious leaders came together in a landmark
meeting, to witness first hand how football clubs were working together to tackle sectarianism and racism. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Church of Scotland Moderator, Alan McDonald, together with representatives from the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish communities and First Minister Jack McConnell all took part.
‘The inroads being made are plain to see,’ says Gary Morisson. ‘Just ten years ago, such a meeting on this issue would have been unthinkable.’
‘Success on the field can also help us make great strides,’ said a spokesman at Celtic Football Club.
‘Celtic’s finest hour came back in 1967 when we became the first club in Britain to win the biggest prize in the game, The European Cup. In May 2003 Celtic went to the EUFA Cup Final in Seville, with the largest away support for any non international game in European football history. An estimated 30 000 to 40 000 Celtic fans travelled to the game. Sadly, we lost in extra time to Porto, but it brought back many happy memories and was a peaceful occasion, though the memory of the game itsef may not have been so pleasant.
Walter Smith, Rangers boss, also believes success can help improve any lingering problems we have with the game.
A spokesman for the Rangers fan club pointed out that back in 1972, when Rangers won the Cup Winners Cup in Barcelona, captain John Greig and the team had to be presented with the trohpy in the dressing room, because of crowd trouble. I cannot see that happening nowadays, he said.
The game itself has made great strides and everyone at this club is determined to keep up, he added.
And it’s not just your average punter embroiled in the ‘Old Firm’. Notable sporting celebreties who’ll be following Rangers progress this season, include golfers,Colin Montgomerie, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, 2006 World Champion Graeme Dott, and actor, Sean Connery.
Some of the rich and famous who follow Celtic’s fortunes, include former middleweight champ, Steve Collins, snooker players Alan McManus and current world champion John Higgins, comedian and actor, Billy Connolly, and singer, Rod Stewart.