Celtic Rangers rivalry: What happens when a soccer feud gets out of hand.

The stadium scene.
March 23 2011 9:58 AM

The Scottish Play

Celtic vs. Rangers, and what happens when a sports rivalry gets completely out of hand.

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But the moral calculus quickly gets muddy. From very early on, both the Protestant-Catholic schism and its mirror image in soccer were appropriated and exploited by every sort of cultural and political authority. To take a brief and unchronological survey: The Scottish Census Report of 1871 enshrined anti-Catholic prejudice within the government, sneering that "living among the Scots does not seem to have improved the Irish, but the native Scots who live among the Irish have got worse." Associating with Celtic was a way for Labour politicians to signal their support for Irish Home Rule, thus attracting the Irish vote; associating with Rangers was a way for the Tories to signal their embrace of the middle-class status quo. Catholic priests have held open-air masses in Celtic Park. In the 1920s, at the height of the anti-Catholic bigotry, the Church of Scotland issued a report called "The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality," and an anti-Catholic street gang called the Billy Boys founded the Glasgow chapter of the KKK. (A song glorifying the Billy Boys later became a Rangers fan anthem.) *

Celtic fans. Click image to expand.
Celtic fans sing during a match against Rangers

Police incompetence frequently exacerbated the problem. In 1980, another riot —this one televised, and likened by the announcer to "a scene out of Apocalypse Now"—broke out at the Scottish Cup final. Police were slow to break it up because, bewilderingly, they left the stadium to patrol the area outside the stadium at the end of 90 minutes—even though the match went into extra time.

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Starting with the Irish Civil War, the Old Firm rivalry expanded to take in the Troubles. In Belfast, Rangers fan clubs still do double duty as Orange Order headquarters. Celtic became a symbol of, and their fans sang songs to celebrate, the IRA. (In turn, Irish rebel bands like the Wolfe Tones wrote pro-Celtic songs that doubled as republican anthems.) From the Edwardian era on, writers used Rangers-Celtic matches to encode their own prejudices. The Scotsman's report on the 1909 riot notes that the violence was carried out by "the most degraded sections of the community, the self-respecting portion having as far as possible retired when the character of the fray became apparent." Three guesses whom they meant.

The Old Firm feud, in other words, served for decades as a kind of receptacle into which anyone with a pulpit could pour their antipathies. Only now that the political and religious institutions have moved on, their current occupants are shocked that the lid sometimes comes off and that there are antipathies still inside. Subjecting two soccer teams to decades of complex and mutually reinforcing social grievances leads to a kind of insanity of symbolism that's hard to shake. How do you make sense, in the Internet age, of a headline like "Rangers fan admits kicking Celtic fan to death in kebab shop"? Or of the murder of Kevin McDaid, who was beaten to death in 2009 by a gang of unionists in his small Northern Irish town, causing fans to turn the site of the attack into a shrine of Celtic soccer memorabilia?

Today's Old Firm matches have a surreal quality, like a dream about events that happened a long time ago. Irish tricolors and Union Jacks wave in the stands. Rangers fans with cellphone cameras sing gleefully about being "up to our knees in Fenian blood." A lot of this may simply be supporters indulging in an empty ritual, what Franklin Foer calls the "pornographic pleasure" of sectarian re-enactment. (A Rangers executive once identified a segment of fans whom he called "90-minute bigots.") But real violence still breaks out. Players and coaches still routinely receive death threats. In January, two Celtic players got bullets in the mail.

In the end, the first minister of Scotland's summit, staged on March 8, produced the predictable six-point plan to establish task forces and commission further studies. And since last weekend's Old Firm match in the Scottish League Cup final was played without incident, sectarianism is off the front page. The players, who were warned before the match that they could be arrested for bad behavior, played a slightly subdued, entertaining game, which Rangers won 2-1 in extra time. The rivalry has at least reached the point at which the violence sometimes wanes. But as long as Rangers and Celtic continue to serve their strange role as the national unconscious for memories of cultural strife, sectarian conflict will keep finding its way into Scottish soccer. Anger and violence will come back, like a bad dream.

Correction, March 25, 2011: This piece originally and incorrectly claimed a supporters' group for the Rangers soccer club helped establish the Glasgow chapter of the KKK. While a song glorifying the Billy Boys did become a Rangers anthem, the early 20th-century gang was not affiliated with the soccer team. (Return to the corrected sentences.)

Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.