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.

Rangers. Click image to expand.
Kyle Lafferty of Rangers celebrates a win over Celtic 

This month, the first minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, hauled representatives from the country's two biggest soccer clubs to a summit about the violence surrounding their rivalry. A few days earlier, a match between Rangers and Celtic had, like many before it, tumbled into chaos: three Rangers players given red cards, 34 fans arrested in the stands. Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, ended the game by squaring off against Rangers assistant Ally McCoist on the sideline. Two weeks before that, another match between the two clubs had coincided with 229 arrests. Statistics compiled by Scottish law enforcement suggest that rates of violent crime and domestic abuse more than double whenever Rangers and Celtic play.

Now politicians, the police, the media, and the church were all demanding change. Annabel Goldie, the leader of the Tories in Scotland, held the players and coaches responsible for the actions of their fans: "If they start behaving like thugs, without a shadow of a doubt, minority elements of their supporters will also start behaving like thugs." The head of the Scottish Police Federation called for the rivalry to be banned, urging that "this madness cannot go on." Leaders of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church issued a joint statement pleading with players not to "disgrace the good name of Scotland." The columnist Alan Cochrane called the rivalry "a depressing curse on the face of Scotland" and roared that Celtic and Rangers "just don't get it."

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Scotland's leading soccer clubs aren't the only ones who just don't get it. The problem with all this solemn intoning from the country's most prestigious institutions isn't that the Celtic-Rangers rivalry is innocent; it's far from that. The problem is that the rivalry reflects social tensions that no one has done more to foster than the social institutions that are now blaming soccer for the country's ills. The Old Firm, as Celtic and Rangers are collectively known, preserves an ancient sectarian hatred that is baroquely entwined through all levels of Scottish society. For politicians and priests to cry J'accuse at the clubs while ignoring all the ways in which their own predecessors have stoked that same conflict is to treat a symptom as a disease.

Many sports rivalries reflect underlying social causes. Very few manage to cram in as many as Rangers-Celtic. The feud combines elements of nationalism, religious conflict, class struggle, and political strife, much of it originating outside Scotland, all of it bound up in the history of Scotland's largest city, where both clubs are based. Throughout the mid-19th century, a flood of Irish immigrants, many of them poor and Catholic, "washed up," as contemporary language liked to have it, in the industrial city of Glasgow. The Protestant majority received them with fear and hostility. In 1887, an Irish Marist Brother founded Celtic Football Club as a fundraising tool for his Catholic charity, the Poor Children's Dinner Table. Celtic played its first match—against Rangers, a previously nondescript Glasgow team—in 1888.

From the beginning, Celtic was identified with working-class, Irish Catholic immigrants. Rangers soon came to represent a contrasting (and depending on your viewpoint, reactionary) vision of a Scottish identity that was conservative, middle-class, and Protestant. Matches between the two were frequently interrupted by pitch invasions and fighting. In 1909, a Scottish Cup final contested by Rangers and Celtic had the distinction of hosting what historian David Goldblatt calls the first "full-scale football riot." (It was a doozy—fans lit the stands on fire, and when the fire brigades showed up, the crowd hurled stones at them.)

Though the sectarian conflict was partly based on economic anxieties, it was, ironically, enormously beneficial to the clubs, which took in huge gate receipts as supporters flocked to see the team with which they identified. The Old Firm soon dwarfed the rest of Scottish soccer—to date, Rangers and Celtic have won 95 of 114 league championships. If either club hadn't existed, the other would likely have lived out its years quietly—nothing more than a run-of-the-mill, non-politically-signifying soccer club. Because they became symbols for fans who wanted to kill each other, they're the greatest teams in Scotland.

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