November 29, 2000

An Old Firm for the Ages

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When Martin Luther tacked his 95 theses on the door of the chapel in Wittenburg, Germany, chastising the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church back in 1517, he unwittingly opened a religious wound in this world that will likely never be closed. Though later excommunicated by the Vatican for alleged heresy, he was able to rock the world of Christiandom forever, sparking the Protestant Reformation and creating an eternal struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism.

That was nearly half a millennium ago. But today, according to The Guardian, if you look down the River Clyde from the Kingston Bridge in Glasgow, Scotland, you can witness just what Martin Luther’s 95 theses have spawned. In the same the line of vision, your eyes will behold Ibrox Park and Celtic Park — home, respectively, to Scottish football giants and fiercest of all rivals, Rangers and Celtic.

What makes the rivalry between the two clubs has nothing to do with the fact that they claim most of the football fans in Scotland, or that they’re a class above the rest of the country’s teams, or even that Rangers have won the league title 11 of the last 12 years while Celtic have been the disgraced bridesmaid most of those seasons.

No, what classifies Rangers-Celtic as arguably the greatest rivalry on Earth has to do with the fact that it has essentially created a dividing ravine in Glasgow (and for the most part, Scotland) along religious lines. While the world’s great rivalries (Boston-L.A. in the NBA, Barcelona-Real Madrid in La Liga, McEnroe-Borg in tennis) are based ultimately on athletic competition, when Rangers and Celtic play, their contests are very much grounded in a much a higher (and a more heavenly) realm.

Rangers, as Andrew O’Hagan reported in The Guardian, have always had a close bond with the shipyard workers in Glasgow, who have traditionally been Protestants. And Celtic have always had their fan-base dominated by the Irish-Catholic immigrants from Glasgow’s east end, who not only built Celtic Park but also used it in the ’20s and ’30s as a venue for open-air masses.

As a result, when Rangers and Celtic do meet twice a year — in a game fondly termed the Old Firm derby — the football isn’t necessarily what’s in the limelight. As former Celtic defender Jackie McNamara told The Guardian, “There is a real hatred in these people’s eyes.”

That hatred, of course, is because Old Firm battles have become struggles in the name of God. Even though Celtic and Rangers supporters will faithfully line up behind the Scottish national team during international competition, it is exactly their faith and denominational disparity that pits them at opposite ends of the spectrum during domestic play.

Listen, for example, to the response Charlie Whelan of The Guardian elicited when he asked a Rangers fan why the team’s best year was one when they couldn’t even win a league championship: “It was the year two Popes died and Danny McGrain [a Celtic defender] broke his leg.”

Scotland — the one that Ewan McGregor’s character bemoans in Trainspotting — has missed out on the economic surge that has emerged in the rest of Europe. It’s still considered a blue-collar country, saddled with poverty and unemployment. But when Celtic and Rangers face each other, the country lights up, the streets of Glasgow boil over with fans, the pubs churn out roving drunkards, and inside Ibrox or Celtic Park, each set of supporters — divided inside the stadium — attempts to lord their religion, their beliefs, their passions over the other one.

Celtic fans wave the Gaelic tricolors and bellow out Irish songs while their Rangers counterparts display the flags of the Protestant Orange Order. It is indeed the kind of division one would expect in the dicey Bermuda Triangle of downtown Belfast — the epicenter of the Protestant/Catholic split.

Never, however, does the animosity stay within the confines of the football pitch. For example, when Rangers inked a sponsorship contract with McEwans lager, Celtic fans — as Glasgow taxi driver David Hodgeson told The Guardian — reacted viciously, saying, “I wouldn’t drink that piss.” And from that point, Celtic bars stopped serving McEwans.

But it’s not just the fans that embody the religious hatred. Until recently Rangers refused to sign Catholic footballers, and a few years ago, and it was a rare sight to see any Protestants take the field at Celtic Park.

What has really characterized the recent Old Firm games has been a spate of ugly violence and an increased police presence. Though a law passed in 1980 banned alcoholic consumption during games, the devil’s brew has fermented into rage and fury nonetheless.

In a pair of crucial games last May, a referee gushed blood from his forehead when fans pelted him with coins and then vandalized his house, knife battles took place on the streets, and a 16-year old Celtic fan was stabbed to death although he nonetheless sang an old Irish rebel song as he stood bleeding.

Never mind that in those two contests, Rangers clinched both the 1998-1999 league title and the Scottish Cup trophy. All that really matters is that the clashes between Protestantism and Catholicism once again reared its ugly but passionate head.

However, as religious worship around the world has faded, so apparently has the luster of the Old Firm. No longer are the clubs’ fan-bases religiously exclusive. No longer do the police forces have to enact de facto martial law tactics to prevent violence. No longer do Ibrox and Celtic Park feel like war zones.

But as long as Rangers and Celtic exist, as long as Old Firms are played, as long Protestantism and Catholicism dominate Christianity, the passion and the hatred in Glasgow will, for better or worse, be a fixture of the city’s character.

Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj