Friday, October 19, 2007

The Old Firm

You'll Never Walk Alone

I've mentioned the Old Firm in passing on the blog, but it bears an explanation, since tomorrow features the first Old Firm clash of the season.

The Simple Explanation
Old Firm, along with Barça/Real Madrid, are quite simply the biggest, most important rivalries in sport. Period.

A Bit More
Imagine the biggest American sports rivalry you can. Cubs/Cardinals doesn't count, because it's a polite, sporting rivalry. I would buy a Cubs fan a beer after a game, and I know Cubs fans would do the same for me. The rivalry lacks vitriol. Try Yankees/Red Sox, the Red River Shootout, or Carolina/Duke. Now, add some political and religious strife.

Celtic F.C. (pronounced sel'-tik) and Rangers F.C. are more than the two most decorated Scottish football clubs. Rangers holds a slight lead in head to head matchups (149-135 with 92 draws), as well as more league championships (51-41), but Celtic has more Scottish Cups (34-31), and are the only Scottish team to win the European Championship. Because Glasgow (home to both teams) is home to a very large Irish immigrant population, Celtic and Rangers have become talismans for Irishmen of all stripes, mostly due to the circumstances surrounding Celtic's founding.

When the Irish made their way to Glasgow following decades of English oppression and the Great Hunger, they were almost universally poor and almost universally Catholic. Many found their way to soup kitchens, where they received nourishment with a side of proselytizing, since the soup kitchens were run by native Anglicans. Catholic ministers were worried that the flock was giving up Catholicism out of necessity, as protestantism meant food on the table. Furthering their concerns, there were no activities for Catholic children that didn't involve the Anglican Church.

So, Brother Walfrid, a Marist, simultaneously founded The Poor Children's Dinner Table, a Catholic soup kitchen, and Celtic F.C., both as an activity for Catholic youth to participate in and a method of funding the charity. In 1888, playing their first ever match, Celtic defeated Rangers 5-2 in what was called a "friendly encounter." The friendliness, unfortunately, wouldn't last.

By the time of the First World War, Ireland was fighting for independence from the United Kingdom, and Irish nationalism was at an all-time high. Ireland had no major football league to speak of, so Celtic received an influx of support from Catholic Republicans across the Emerald Isle. Catholics saw Celtic as a way to express themselves, much the same way as Barcelonans used Barça to express their Catalan nationalism. Rangers, for reasons unknown (though likely due to their proximity to Celtic) received the support of Protestant Loyalists, and it's never been the same.

The rivalry is not only hotly contested in Glasgow, but also in Belfast and the rest of Northern Ireland, with tens of thousands making their way to Scotland for games via ferry and plane. For decades, Celtic did not sign protestants and Rangers did not sign Catholics. A Jesuit priest once did an analysis of refereeing decisions, attempting to prove that the Scottish (read: protestant) referees were biased against Celtic. Mo Johnston, a Catholic who had played several seasons for Celtic, was accused of abandoning his heritage (and worse) for signing to play with Rangers. A Rangers director once came under heavy criticism for publicly stating that the Pope was a man of perdition. The games are physical on the pitch and occasionally in the stands.

Even the symbolism of their crests and uniforms reference the Catholic Republican/Protestant Loyalist tension. Celtic's crest is a shamrock, a symbol of Irish nationalism and St. Patrick. The green of Celtic's hoops is a Republican color. Meanwhile, the lion on Rangers' crest is a symbol of England, the red, white, and blue match the Union Jack, and blue is a traditional protestant color.

While the rivalry is fierce and enjoyable, both sides have made great strides to reign in the outright sectarianism, to their credit. But, as Mother Jones says, "economic globalization basically swept away discrimination against Catholics, but many of the city's Protestants never got a chance to adapt emotionally to the change." On the flip side, Catholics still feel discriminated against, even though this may no longer be the case.

So, words will be exchanged tomorrow, tempers will flare, and players will leave it all on the pitch. 90% of Ibrox will be blue tomorrow, but the slice in green, white, and orange will make themselves known. And while you might hear strains of "If you hate the f*ckin Feinians, clap your hands" from those in blue, I'll be singing "You Never Walk Alone." After all, it's a grand old team to play for.

P.S. If you want even more, read chapter two of Franklin Foer's How Soccer Explains the World: An (Unlikely) Theory of Globalization.


Domo said...

1- Sorry but your point on soup kitchens is only partly true. Because of the sectarism in Scotland and bad feeling due to the Irish "stealing the jobs" people refused give food and aid so Brother Walfred started Celtic to help the poor Irish community who were literally starving. Also the reason he picked the name Celtic was because it united both Scots and Irish under their shared Celtic ancestry.

2- Even the very first Celtic team had precedents in the team over half the Lisbon lions (European champs) were protestant, this has never been an issue but Rangers often sacked their players if they found out they were Catholic up in till the 1980s. For fuck sake their first Catholic captain was Ameriso about 4 years ago.

3- Celtic don’t sing songs against Protestants we sing republican and anti sectarian songs

And no I am not Catholic my family are mixed da Catholic ma Protestant and I made my own mind who to support.

Neil said...

Most of what you say here I wouldn't dispute (I fact i'm afraid I would not be knowlegable enough on the subject to say whether your facts were correct or not).

However you mention the lion as a symbol of England.

Englands royal coat of arms is 3 lions.

The lion rampant on the Rangers crest is a referance to the Scottish royal coat of arms.

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