Religion and Soccer: When Two Tribes Go To War – by Nialler

Of all of the great rivalries which have graced (and in somes cases disgraced) sport there can be few as extreme as the contests between the two largest soccer clubs in Scotland: Celtic and Rangers. Where many sporting rivalries are based on nationalism (think India versus Pakistan), or can be based on geographical proximity (Arsenal versus Chelsea), or even political (Barcelona versus Madrid), very few of them are based on the confluence of all of the above, with religion added to the mix. In Glasgow, all of these conditions combine in the perfect storm of sectarianism which is evident when Celtic and Rangers football clubs meet on the soccer pitch.

The two clubs – known collectively as “The Old Firm” – share the city of Glasgow – a fact which would in itself guarantee a high degree of competition betwen the two. That they are both by some distance the strongest clubs in Scotland also means that they are almost invariably competing for the top honours in their games – which only adds to the rivalry. But more than that, there is over a century of political and religious division, which gains often violent expression in their regular meetings.

Rangers Football Club was formed in 1872. There are no indications that it was initially formed with a specific cultural or religious identity in mind, but the links which the club forged – in particular with the shipyards – almost certainly ensured an overwhelmingly Protestant ethos to the club and among its supporters. As tensions between native Glaswegians and Irish immigrants (fleeing the Potato Famine) grew, Rangers informally adopted its Protestant identity, although the policy wouldn’t actually be articulated publicly until the 1960’s.

Celtic Football Club was founded in 1887 by an Irish Marist brother, who felt that a soccer club would be a good way to raise funds to alleviate poverty in the deprived parts of Glasgow. The name of the club reflected its roots amongst the Irish immigrant community and the colours still used by the team (green and white), along with club emblem of a shamrock, all underline the identity with Ireland. That identity extended to a religious one too, Celtic being a strongly Catholic club. It is an affiliation that remains to this day. Celtic considered formalising their status as a Catholic-only club in 1895 – or at least capping the number of Protestants who could play for the club – but the suggestion wasn’t accepted. By that stage, it was hardly necessary. A Catholic simply couldn’t have played for Rangers, and a Protestant would never have attempted to join Celtic, so a prohibition was irrelevant.

Surprisingly enough, the clubs and their supporters had managed to operate without any major incidents for almost a century, when the lid on sectarianism was lifted by Rangers’ admission in 1962 that the club was Protestant and would remain so.

The revelation could not have come at a worse time. The deteriorating situation in Northern Ireland added a Nationalist/Loyalist layer to what had largely been a normal enough sporting rivalry to that point, and brutally exposed the sectarian rift between not only the clubs, but the parts of the community that they represented. Indeed, in 1909 it is recorded that Celtic and Rangers fans at the Scottish Cup Final jointly invaded the pitch, wrecking the stadium and taking on the police – a rare demonstration of teamwork! Now, however, the language of bigrotry became that of Northern Ireland; Celtic were called “Fenian Scum”, while Rangers were “Orange Bastards”. If the taunting had been restricted to the terraces, that might have been tolerable, but as the situation in Northern Ireland deteriorated even further through the 70’s, and as English football hooliganism became an aspect and a symbol of soccer in the UK as a whole, the bigotry began to achieve violent expression.

Inside the stadiums missiles would be thrown (the “razor potato” – a potato into which several razor blades had been set with the sharp edges protruding – was a particularly nasty weapon). Sectarian songs and taunts would ring out from both sides of the ground. Pitch invasions were frequent. On one occasion, the match referee needed 10 stitches to a head-wound inflicted by a missile. At times of greater tension in Northern Ireland, the tension at the games would be even higher. Sometimes even the players got involved, with one Rangers player, Paul Gascoigne, miming the playing of a flute to the Celtic fans (the flute being a symbol of the Orange marches so hated by the Catholic community in Northern Ireland). It’s hard to imagine what – if anything – was going through his mind while doing that. It was far easier to imagine a bottle going through his mind. He was find ¬£20K for that little performance.

While the fans were segregated in the grounds, they would eventually and inevitably meet on the streets, where pitched battles with arrests numbering in the hundreds were common.

One campaign to eliminate this scourge is “Nil by Mouth”, a campaign formed in 1999 by a young woman called Cara Henderson, whose boyfriend had been killed in violence after a Rangers-Celtic match in 1995. Both clubs have similar campaigns and publicise their opposition to sectarianism extensively in the media. Police and match stewards are vigilant on match day, and CCTV is used to spot any ring-leaders. But still it continues.

A final note – this time to the unwary traveller: If visiting Glasgow it is advisable to be aware of match arrangements – unlike the English football commentator who was sent to Glasgow once to report on the match. In his naivete he parked his spanking new royal-blue Porsche in an area through which Celtic fans would subsequently be routed after the game. When he returned to the car the engine mountings where the only identifiable remains.

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