The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

On the Hoops!

Posted by steigs on December 4, 2007

For the second consecutive year, Glasgow’s Celtic have managed to make it to the knock-out round of the Champions League without winning an away match.  Riding their luck, they survived a 1-0 loss at the San Siro to a disinterested AC Milan in the final game of the group stage while Benfica eliminated Shaktar in the Ukraine.  

Home field advantage matters a great deal but it seems absurd that a side that has beaten Man U and AC Milan at home in the last two years can look so awful abroad.  In three Champions League away games this season they didn’t even manage a goal.  Yeesh.  As Lord of the Wing put it:

Milan went up a gear in the second half, while we continued wie oor canny hold or water away performance where players who are usually reliable become bungling fools, liable to run balls oot the park, pass to the opposition or look at the ball like it’s a live grenade before booting as far up the park, to nae one, as possible.

What’s behind this home form?  At least in part, it must owe something to the remarkable fan support they get.  Celtic are, you see, the team of the great Irish diaspora, beloved in Guinness-drinking pubs around the world.   Want to hear about my visit to Celtic Park on a European night — even if it was the UEFA Cup — and how Scotland isn’t all bagpipes and Braveheart?  Read on!

Glasgow – November 2002

It’s drizzling and everything has gone gray. During the winter in Glasgow it always feels like it is about to rain, has just finished raining or else it actually is raining. There is a perpetual dampness. It is as if the sun is too weak to break through the overcast and offer real warmth, like maybe it needs to put in some gym time and get in shape.

It’s an oddity of soccer that Scotland competes on its own in international tournaments and has its own league. After all, it’s been part of the “United Kingdom” for centuries. The separate Scottish national team and league predate FIFA and the rest of the world getting organized for soccer. In fact, the first official “international” match was Scotland versus England way back in 1872.

So now I’m in Glasgow, looking for the soccer spirit of the Scots and finding that, well, it’s a rather dreary place in the winter. Glasgow is a Buffalo or Cleveland, a once mighty industrial power now groping to deal with an economy where there are not nearly as many things for factories to produce, at least not in our wealthy western countries. Once Glasgow could plausibly claim to be the second city of the British Empire. The yards along the Clyde hummed with shipbuilding. The merchants sold all over the world. No more.

I am trudging along through the wet, leaving behind the remnants of that fin-de-siecle booming Glasgow. One reminder is now an art museum, housed where the great 1901 Exposition was held, which includes an array of works from that wealthy time by the “Glasgow Boys,” a group of artists influenced by Whistler, their work a burst of color and flash. Startling at the time, perhaps, they now seem merely offbeat in a rather hip manner. Around the same time architect and designer Charles Rennie MacKintosh was putting up buildings all around Glasgow which, to my untrained eye, look like proto art deco, with clean lines and flash of their own.

This art now feel like a glimpse of the wilder side of the long-gone boom, like hearing of the bohemian youth of a retiree straining to make ends meet. The Glasgow of today strives to be happening. The city center is a serious shopping hub. The others out today seem mostly to be hurrying between the multiple indoor malls. But once you leave downtown the poverty and economic problems become noticeable.

I head east out of the city’s center along a street known as Gallowgate, an amusingly macabre name bringing to mind medieval executions. The mind’s eye sees religious dissidents preaching one last sermon or petty thieves facing Dickensian justice.

Today this stretch of road appears to be fading fast. The further from downtown I go, the more often I pass vacant lots and the worse the odds of a business actually being open. Even the bars – so often the last survivor in despairing communities – are often shuttered. Take-away fish and chip shops with iron bars in their windows. A billboard suggests a getaway to…Northern Ireland. I recognize that things have improved in Belfast in recent years but it still seems to say something about the Glaswegian mood that Belfast is a holiday destination.

This is not the Scotland I imagined. It’s Trainspotting Scotland, not Braveheart Scotland. Nobody in a kilt here, tooting on bagpipes. No windy moor or sweeping highland scenery. It is, however, the reality for many Scots – the bulk of Scotland’s population lives in this central belt, in or near Glasgow. The main exceptions are the white collar world of Edinburgh, with its education and financial services sectors, and oil-rich Aberdeen in the northeast. It’s this gritty setting of Glasgow which boasts what may be the single most bitter and famous rivalry in world soccer – the “Old Firm” duel between Rangers and Celtic.

I’m hardly the first American to learn this reality about Scotland. There’s a story that when it came time to film the popular musical Brigadoon, the one about a magical Scottish village in the Highlands, that Hollywood’s location scouts decided that there wasn’t a place in Scotland right for it. So they made the film elsewhere, ensuring eternal Scottish grumpiness about the movie.

This disconnect between the Scotland of popular American imagination and the reality of modern Scotland was probably a reason one of my favorite bands failed to make it big in America. Those of you of a certain age may recall Big Country, who had a hit in the early days of MTV with “In a Big Country.” The song was an upbeat bit of rock with the two guitars managing to produce a sound rather like bagpipes. They wore plaid and sang lines like “In a big country/ Dreams stay with you/ Like a lover’s voice/ Fires a mountainside.” They had an optimistic, expansive sound, like they were from wide-open spaces of the Highlands.

I loved it. A Big Country show was, in fact, the first rock concert I attended. They had a top 40 hit with their first album, got decent press and were seen a part of an early 1980s wave of Celtic guitar bands led by U2.

And they never had another real US hit, although their follow-up albums were popular in Europe. Me, I liked those following albums. I still play them sometimes. But hardly anyone else does. The usual explanation is the bagpipe sound was a gimmick people got tired of – a recipe for a one-hit wonder.

Perhaps there’s some truth to that but I think their increasing focus on industrial Scotland – or, by that point in the 1980s, failing industrial Scotland – played a role. Their songs featured mill towns facing bleak futures. Their second album was even titled Steeltown. Americans didn’t want to hear about that side of Scotland. It didn’t fit our image of the place. And Springsteen was already keeping us updated about the troubles in our own mill towns.

Walking around post-industrial Glasgow, Big Country’s shift makes more sense. The industrial noise of Glasgow’s own Jesus and Mary Chain, another 1980s band, makes even more sense. Bleak and bitter – I can easily imagine feeling like that as Thatcher era unemployment mounted and the rain never stopped. The Iggy Pop-listening heroin addicts of Trainspotting seem especially plausible now.

Sad, dark thoughts. Luckily, there’s a warmer haven awaiting me – Baird’s Bar. Just across the street from the lonely “Booze and News” liquor store, Baird’s is a classic Irish pub that also serves as secular shrine to Celtic FC, pride of Glasgow’s East End, symbol of the Irish diaspora and eternal rivals of Rangers. The walls of Baird’s are covered with team photos from various eras, the familiar green and white horizontally striped jerseys repeated over and over in the changing styles of the times. There are pennants and framed newspapers too. The place shouts “Celtic!” as if the interior decorator was a twelve year old boy at his most intense state of fandom. Celtic fight songs can be found on the jukebox, the most famous of which they share with Liverpool, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

You may be puzzled as to why the preeminent Irish soccer team is based in Scotland. Soccer has always been a relatively secondary sport in Ireland, long seen as too British or English in a culture consumed with getting, and then asserting, independence from the British Empire. Only in the last couple of decades, helped by some decent performances in World Cups, has the sport taken off within Ireland itself. This came too late for a strong league infrastructure to develop and good Irish players inevitably move to the English or Scottish leagues.

This explains why there are no powerhouse teams in Dublin or Cork – but why Glasgow? The great 19th century emigration from Ireland gave America a robust Irish-American population. That tide also flowed east to then booming cities of the British Empire – London, Liverpool…and Glasgow.

In Scotland, the Irish Catholics were seen as a scary set of interlopers by the fiercely Protestant majority. Catholicism had been almost totally driven from Scotland by the mid-19th century and its revival by poor Irish immigrants was not welcomed. Not to mention the competition they brought for jobs in the mills and shipyards.

As happened in the US, the Irish Catholics developed their own institutions. In Glasgow, organized soccer was just taking off. So it happened in 1887 that a priest organized a team as a way to raise money for the poor of Glasgow’s East End. In their very first game they played – and beat – Rangers by a score of 5-2. Supposedly it was a friendly affair. That soon changed.

Once Celtic and the Catholics began to have some success the inevitable reaction kicked in – a team would inevitably rise to represent the pro-British, anti-Irish Catholic views of the majority in Scotland. Rangers, another Glasgow team, soon assumed that mantle, becoming a magnet for the Protestant side of the sectarian divide. As late as 1989, it was official Rangers policy not to field a Catholic player. (They signaled the change when they signed Catholic Mo Johnston, who had once even played for Celtic, and who later went on to lead the Kansas City Wizards to the MLS Cup in 2000.)

We Americans knows about the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland. Glasgow – and Scotland as a whole – has experienced its own small scale, much less organized version of it for decades, symbolized by the regular games between Celtic and Rangers. The two teams have dominated the Scottish league – Rangers have won nearly 50 championships, Celtic more than 30. No other team in Scotland is even in double digits.

Let me attempt to translate the “Old Firm” rivalry into American sports terms. Imagine college football if Ohio State and Michigan shared a city. Then go further and imagine that one team had only white players and the other only black players. Now we’re in the ballpark. Oh, and they play four to six times a year as well, not just once.

Scottish society has become much more inclusive. Discrimination against those of Irish Catholic backgrounds has largely become a thing of the past. Still, the sectarian rivalry continues. Wearing team colors – Celtic green or Rangers blue – can be a provocation, like wearing gang colors in another gang’s neighborhood. During one Glasgow taxi ride my driver helpfully pointed out an intersection boasting two pubs with Rangers leanings, telling me how some thugs had killed a teenage Celtic fan there just the previous year.

In its early years, the rivalry was limited to the field. History suggests that it was in the 1920s and 1930s that it turned tough, sometimes violent. Tensions between the Irish Catholic immigrants and Protestant communities were rising and it was reflected in the “Old Firm” game. At one point in the 1930s Glasgow’s police chief threatened to ban the games altogether. By the 1980s the authorities did ban alcohol and bottles at Scottish league games, in no small part because of incidents at Celtic-Rangers games.

Sadly, the violence continues. In 1995, a Celtic supporter named Mark Scott was stabbed to death after a game at Celtic Park, apparently for the crime of wearing the green and white of Celtic. Hospitals add doctors and nurses whenever there’s an Old Firm game. Drunken Rangers fans have been known to call doctors treating them “Fenian bastards” for the green color of their scrubs. Blue-clad nurses, in turn, get called “whores” by the Celtic hooligans they are assisting. Yikes.

I settle in at Baird’s, feeling at home. I should confess that I am a Celtic fan. As a Catholic, albeit of a rather lapsed sort, and as someone who is of largely Irish descent on my mother’s side, the choice seemed already made for me. I get a Guinness. JFK posters interrupt the Celtic materials on the walls. The jukebox appears to be programmed to play mostly U2 songs.

Regulars keep wandering in, greeting each other with back slaps and jokes. There’s some serious action going down at the pool table. When it’s realized I’m a visiting Celtic fan from America, I am welcomed into the gang. I can tell I’m hardly the first. I feel like I’m in a clubhouse. I’m given, of all things, a Celtic advent calendar, complete with little chocolate treats. And I get to see one of the “Lisbon Lions.”

Okay, so he was a substitute and didn’t play in the team’s most famous game. And he was too busy tending bar and talking to friends to shake my hand and say hello. Still, I’m a little in awe. The Lisbon Lions were Celtic’s greatest team, European champions in 1967 in a final played in Lisbon. They were a bunch of guys from Glasgow’s East End – the team’s starters were all raised within 50 miles of Glasgow, or so the story goes – who beat the best Europe could throw at them, culminating in an upset victory over Inter Milan. One of the Celtic players said that his reaction upon seeing the glamorous Italian players was “My God, they’re film stars!” But the Glasgow boys won anyway. Rangers may have won more Scottish league titles than Celtic but the Lisbon Lions gave Celtic an eternal trump card – only Celtic has been European champion. They were the first British team to be European champions in fact, beating Manchester United to the honor by a year.

Tickets to Celtic home games can be hard to come by. Celtic Park, capacity about 60,000, is nearly sold out through season tickets. It is that kind of devoted fan base. Sean, a friend of mine who immigrated from Scotland as a child, tells of being informed at age four by a grandfather that he was to root for Celtic because that what male members of his family had always done. To this day you can often find Sean on weekend mornings at a pub named Flanagan’s watching games with the Celtic fan club of Washington.

While in Glasgow, I score a ticket to a UEFA Cup match against Celta Vigo, a team based in the rainy northwest Spain, where, by coincidence, the ancient Celts also once dwelt. Granted, the UEFA Cup is less prestigious than the Champions League but it’s been a long time since the Lisbon Lions made Celtic a threat to win the European title. In this globalized era, it’s harder to compete with the Inter Milans and Barcelonas from the Scottish league and its lesser financial base. You can’t just line up a team from the neighborhood anymore.

There is an air of excitement the next day as I make the long walk from downtown out the Gallowgate for the game, hoping that the upswing in the team’s fortune under coach Martin O’Neill – a Catholic from Northern Ireland, by the way – will translate into a real revival. It is a few rounds into the UEFA Cup and the competition is becoming harder.

Dozens and dozens of fans are making the same walk, dipping into pubs and stopping off at fish and chips places. Now the street is more alive. Baird’s is such a madhouse I don’t even attempt to enter. Some fans are singing, others are laughing, most everyone is wearing some item of green, often a totemic Celtic scarf, as if we’re all bound for a massive St. Patrick’s Day party.

Celtic Park is a palace amidst the weeds, a shiny well-kept stadium standing out among the vacant lots and housing projects. Some of these areas are so tough, I’ve been told, that cabs simply refuse to go to them, like Anacostia in DC except with pale white residents. The large open spaces – have the buildings been torn down? – make the night seem especially dark and Celtic Park especially bright.

The chip vans line the approaches, offering the usual British fare – strange-looking burgers, sausages and even curry, a testament to the deep absorption of Indian food into modern Britain. You can buy Celtic shirts, scarves, CDs of Celtic fight songs. I’m amused to see several people in Boston Celtics gear – one green Irish-themed team is much like another, perhaps – but strangely there’s no sign of the “fighting Irish” of Notre Dame.

Celtic Park is a modern temple of the sport – double-decked on three of the sides. I poke my head in well before the game and there’s an ocean of green plastic seats with a handful of white to make the trademark green and white stripes of Celtic’s jerseys. The night is cool but, surprisingly, not rainy. That’ll probably happen later, I figure.

The concession stands are up to date with plenty of chips and pies on offer. No beer, though, an attempt to limit the potential for crowd trouble. More interestingly, Ladbroke’s, the bookmakers, has on-site windows to allow for wagering on the game. This game. No American hiding of sports gambling here. My brother, a serious NFL bettor on the Internet, would approve.

The wagering permutations on offer are endless, from all possible exact final scores to the time period in which goals will be scored to which player will do the scoring. Bewildered by my options, I take a pass. When I stop in the men’s room I’m amused to find the paper towels are – what else? – green.

My seat is quite good, around the forty-yard line, a dozen rows back from the field. Sometimes you can luck into such circumstances when buying a single seat. (I once saw REM from the front row for this reason.)

I’m surrounded by Jacks, an elderly one to my left, a teenage one to my right. There is a distinct boys night out feel in my section. I shiver a bit in the sharp evening air. The Scottish tradition of a dram of whisky makes a lot more sense on evenings like this one.

No such luck tonight. Instead a series of singers are trotted onto the field to promote the latest official cd of Celtic songs. The crowd ignores them, mostly preferring to spend as much of the pre-game period back under the stands by the concession stands, where it is warmer, chatting and smoking.

In the last few minutes before the game starts there is a surge to the seats. Can’t miss the traditional sing-along to “You’ll Never Walk Along,” the de facto Celtic national anthem. Looking around, Celtic Park is virtually full. The only clearly empty area is a slice of seats in the one corner reserved for the visiting Celta fans. There is a visible contingent of them, just not enough to fill up their whole allotted section. It is a rather long trip to make on a weeknight – why not just go to the return leg in Vigo in weeks and save the airfare? Glasgow in late November is hardly a tourist mecca…unless one is here for soccer.

The stadium announcers asks us to applaud the Spanish fans for coming to town. To my amazement, we do. A friendly folk, the Scots.

The teams enter. A tidal wave of cheering greets Celtic, coming out in their traditional green and white striped shirts. Thousands and thousands rise and hold out their Celtic scarves, demonstrating their allegiance. The names of the starters are shouted.

Announcer: Henrik…
Crowd: Larsson!

While we were willing to cheer Celta’s fans, their light-blue clad team receives a wall of derisive whistles.

For all the tribal Irish loyalty, the Celtic team is no longer a bunch of Catholic lads from Glasgow. Tonight they field only a couple of Scottish players. The biggest star, forward Henrik Larsson, is a Swede, and a dark-skinned one at that. The hot young midfield player is Stilian Petrov, a Bulgarian. Celta’s team is also multi-national, with a Russian and a Brazilian in the line-up. The abiding bitterness of the Celtic-Rangers battles must puzzle these highly-paid foreigners, not that they can ever confess as much to the local press. Or maybe hatred is so common, so intrinsic to human societies, that it actually makes perfect sense to them.

The game jumps off to a quick start. The visitors develop a fast attack but are halted by the Celtic goalie. Then things slow down, becoming more tactical, as if both suddenly realize they’re supposed to be cautious. Each team gently probes the other team’s defenses, trying to do so in a manner that doesn’t open up counter-attacking opportunities for the other. They try long passes in the hopes a forward might make something happen in a flash of individual inspiration, the kind that makes them the highest paid players. No such flair arrives and the game gets tougher, the tackles harder. The referee begins regularly whistling fouls and the Jacks beside me start grumbling.

They’re singers, these Celtic fans. “On the hoops!” is a popular chorus, “hoops” being a nickname for Celtic because of the vertical stripes on their jerseys. Henrik Larsson, one of the leading goal scorers in the team’s long history, inspires several songs of praise. One, sung to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine,” even throws in a gratuitous rude insult to Newcastle’s Alan Shearer, perhaps the English league’s top forward of the 1990s.

They’re also dead serious talkers. The flow of commentary is continuous and as the fans discuss the game there’s an edge of impatience, always urging Celtic players forward, yapping at the referee, as if they can barely stand not knowing how the whole thing will come out. Profanity is a central element of this buzz.

“For fook’s sake!”
“C’mon, lad! Pass the fooking ball!”
“Fat man! Get a fooking move on!”

You get the fooking idea. It’s an exasperated state of intense fandom, like being in a cloud of extra coaches, urging players to pass to the open man or to close down a Celta attack, and they are a frustrated lot when they don’t see things happening as they think they should.

Celtic has the majority of ball possession in the first half. They manage only a few half-chances to score, however, and none are especially clear-cut opportunities. The Celta goalie takes his goal kicks as if he’s walking in quicksand, taking endless seconds to arrange the ball just so before his kick. He’s so obviously wasting time I can’t help but laugh – Celta being happy to escape the road game of the two legs with a 0-0 draw – and he manages to draw a yellow card for his lethargy, a remarkable achievement in the first half of a scoreless game. Younger Jack is delighted by the yellow card. Elder Jack complains it wasn’t fooking given sooner.

A few minutes into the second half, Celtic manage to score off of a corner kick, one of those confusing scrambles where the ball somehow ends up in the net. Inevitably, the scorer proves to be Henrik Larsson. At last! There is much rejoicing. The songs come full force now, one after another. One dubs Larsson the “King of Kings,” which strikes me as a rather blasphemous for a team with such a religiously-affiliated identity but the Jacks seem too happy to care. After the game, Celta’s Spanish coach, Miguel Angel Lotina, paid the Celtic fans a back-handed compliment by saying they were more frightening than the Celtic team.

Now down a goal, the visitors pick up the tempo. They still have the return game at home to make up the difference but going back to Spain at 1-1 is much better than going back down 1-0. Also, “away goals” count double in the tie-breaker. In other words, if the game in Glasgow ended 1-1 and the game in Spain ended 0-0 then Celta would win because they scored more than Celtic on the road. Celta displays more pace and muster some quick-breaking counter attacks. They manage some near misses. Matters become bad-tempered. A Celta player gets a yellow card for play-acting a rather obvious dive in the Celtic penalty area. The referee calls foul after foul in a vain attempt to assert his authority.

The crowd decides the referee isn’t very good and gets on his case. “Fooking!” flies about with abandon. Celtic’s coach, Martin O’Neill, joins in the criticism to such a degree that he manages to get himself ejected a couple of minutes later. After the game, O’Neill calls the ref’s performance “very poor.”

No worries. The game ends 1-0, Celtic. One of the Jacks is talking about the trip to Vigo for the next game. I wish him luck, wistfully envying him the trip. The relieved and – at last – cheerful crowd scatter into the wasteland of the East End. Good things still happen out here sometimes, it seems.

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