The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

Figures that Rangers gets the GREEN team…

Posted by steigs on December 21, 2007

The draw for the Champions League round of 16 and the UEFA cup round of 32 was today, telling us what tasty big-stakes matches will be able to watch in February and March.

Most of the headlines are about the eye-catching match-ups like Arsenal-AC Milan and Real Madrid-Roma.  Me, I’ll be watching Barcelona take out Celtic.  Sigh.  Why do my two favorite Euro teams always have to get drawn together?  (Celtic did manage to upset the Catalans in the 2004 UEFA Cup but lost at home to Barca in the group stages of the following Champions League campaign in ’04-’05.)  I suppose I should be happy that one of my teams will be in the quarter-finals for sure — or that Barca got an easy draw, given the current state of the Hoops.

Meanwhile, the now Beasley-less Rangers drew one of the traditional big two of the Greek league, Panathinaikos.  Not only do they wear green — their crest is a shamrock!  Judging from the team’s Wikipedia entry, though, there’s no sign that it was founded by Irish Catholic immigrants, which should reduce the potential for crowd trouble.

This seems a good time to tell you about my trip to see Rangers.  Want to read more about seeing a game at Ibrox, where they have banners celebrating Queen Elizabeth and bands play “The Great Escape” theme?  Read on after the jump! 

Glasgow B January 2004 
A trip to the other end of Glasgow, to see the Rangers life.  Going to the dark side, as my Celtic friend Sean would put it.  It=s cold in Glasgow this Saturday.  The weather is moody and indecisive.  There=s a hard bit of rain, then sunshine, then a steady drizzle.  At one point while I walk around downtown the sun bursts out for a few moments and the sidewalks glisten so brightly my eyes hurt from the glare.  And here I thought sunglasses were never needed in Glasgow. 
I hop the Glasgow subway, a strangely small tubular train that cuts a wide oval under the city.  The cars are painted orange and is known as, you guessed it, the Aclockwork orange.@  The subway, of course, doesn=t stop anywhere near Celtic Park, one of those facts used to bolster the Athey get all the breaks@ complaints by Celtic fans.  But you can take it to Rangers games. 
Rangers are based in the Govan, south of central Glasgow, and it is a neighborhood trying to rally.  There are housing projects, run-down apartment complexes towering above their neighbors, home to those lost to the working world when the economy changed.  But here and there are middle class in-fills, townhouses for people looking for an affordable foothold in the big city.  When I come out of the clockwork orange there is a strip of middling shops of the common British type B news agents, fish and chips take-aways, betting parlors, pubs. 
I make my way to the environs of Ibrox, the home ground of Rangers, and try AThe Stadium@ pub for a pre-game pint.  It is crammed with blue shirts and smoke.  The decor is minimal but the bar is quite long and quite busy.  Clearly a place that knows its selling point B proximity. 

The Rangers fans aren=t pleased at the moment.  Today=s game against Livingston is taken for granted B Rangers will surely win.  The concern is the widening gap between first place Celtic and second place Rangers, built in no small part on a series of Celtic victories over Rangers.  The Scottish league is only twelve teams B recently expanded from ten B meaning the two teams usually play each other four times during the league season, not the normal twice seen in leagues with more teams, and the results of those AOld Firm@ match-ups usually decide the champion. 
I pick up an unofficial fanzine titled AFollow, Follow.@  The geographic diversity of the fans is strinking B columns by Canadians, Australians, and even a member of the Orange Country Rangers Supporters Club (!) B and, as a Celtic fan, I=m secretly gleeful at the concerns expressed about the heavy debt Rangers is carrying.  The team needs to either do better in European competitions to increase their television revenue or cut back the spending on players. 
The rain has faded off and I move on, making the rounds of the unofficial souvenir stands, pausing to buy something called a cheeseburger that doesn=t taste much like what McDonald=s sells.  The Rangers fans are creative, I give them that.  I could buy Harry Potter or Homer Simpson Rangers scarves.  Others are more sectarian, featuring the Protestant color orange, not Rangers blue, and there=s even a large banner of Queen Elizabeth!  Rangers fans seem so keen on being British I have trouble seeing their Scottish identity. 
At least half my fellow fans are wearing some kind of paraphernalia B replica jerseys, scarves, baseball caps.  A substantial minority are explicitly sectarian, making obscure references to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  I make a survey of the official Rangers club store, a brief one as this is the last team I would actually buy a shirt or scarf for, and I have to admit it is an impressive bit of retailing.  Every sort of clothing B jerseys, shorts, shirts B is on offer with Rangers branding.  In a bit of the Scottish stereotyping, there=s an official Rangers whisky available.  And a complete children=s bedroom, down to the fire alarm.  I=m about to laugh until I recall the NFL bedspread I had for much of my childhood. 
I venture into Ibrox itself.  I had bought the ticket only a few days before so it=s not a great seat.  Like Celtic, Rangers have a huge number of season ticket holders and regularly come close to selling out the 50,000 capacity Ibrox on that basis alone.  I=m up behind one goal, in the higher of the two tiers.  The main stands along the sides of the field have three tiers.  Opposite is a fancy modern video scoreboard.  The seats are, of course, blue and plastic and I check to find that, yes, the paper towels in their rest rooms are blue as well. 
The rain has quit but I am still comforted by the metal roof over us just in case the weather changes its mind again.  There=s a graying father next to me, shepherding two small boys.  He spends much of the afternoon leaning over them engaged in a quiet conversation with one or both of them.  My section is a quiet one in general B perhaps because it=s mainly the curious and neutral like me, rather than the singing shouting diehards. 
It is overcast and cold as the teams are introduced.  A good day by the standards of the Scottish winter.  A round of cheers for Rangers.  Livingston, a scrappy mid-table team, are from a small city between Glasgow and Edinburgh and are met with indifference.  There is a pre-game ceremony for a AGive Racism the Red Card@ public awareness campaign.  Given the way sectarian divisions are at the heart the whole Rangers-Celtic mythos it seems like a pretty minor attempt at addressing a major problem. 
Still, the series of taped bits of Rangers players saying AGive racism the red card@ on the stadium video screen demonstrates that English is a second, or even third, language for many of them.  The stars of Rangers these days include a Spanish midfielder, a Dutch forward, a Danish winger and a German goalie.  Hardly a bunch of Scottish Presbyterians defending the British Isles from the papist Irish.  Not that this stopped a young Rangers defender of Scottish heritage from causing a recent flap by including AFuck the Pope@ on an autograph for a fan… 
The game kicks off and the visitors seem determined to take their shot.  The ball possession and the play are pretty even.  Rangers are in their customary blue, Livingston in yellow.  The most dangerous player for Livingston is Spanish forward David Fernandez, who starred for the team before being sold to Celtic where he Afailed to make an impression@ as the saying goes.  Now he=s been loaned back to Livingston.  The Rangers fans remember, though, and boo him whenever he touches the ball. 
Rangers score 12 minutes in.  The Livingston goalie stops a shot but Christian Nerlinger of Rangers is first to the rebound and converts the shot.  1-0, Rangers.  Cheers.  The fans relax.  In the tier below me a brass band kicks in, spreading good cheer.  They=re quite fond of the theme from AThe Great Escape.@  It is catchy as hell, true, but I can=t quite work out the relevance of a World War II POW escape to Scottish soccer B perhaps it=s just British patriotism, much like the banner with the Queen. 
After the goal, Rangers take command, the gap in team quality (and salaries) showing.  They set up some shots but can=t quite get another ball in the net.  Livingston seems respectable enough.  When they get the ball they don=t give it away easily and manage a few shots of their own without unduly worrying the Rangers fans. 
The Dane, Peter Lovenkrans, on the left wing is the most dangerous of the Rangers players.  His counterpart on the right wing, Portuguese Nuno Capucho, is frustrating the fans.  He always seems to make the cautious backward play when they want the bold attack and goes for the attack when they think he should hold off.  Me, I=m wondering if they understand a Portuguese player is unlikely to be anything but a Catholic. 
Ronald de Boer, the Dutch star now in the twilight of his career, enters the game in the 60th minute.  The crowd cheers.  It is his first game back after some months out with an injury.  De Boer immediately demonstrates that his graceful touch remains intact.  Rangers go close to scoring again but the game stays 1-0. 
About the 80th minute, the crowd starts trickling away.  I=m surprised.  Sure, Rangers are up but it=s only 1-0.  Livingston is still throwing counter attacks at Rangers.  By the 90th minute about a quarter of the crowd is gone. 

As if to spite them, Livingston get a spurt of energy during stoppage time.  They get two dangerous headers from big defender Marvin Andrews, nearly stealing a draw, but the Rangers defense is up to the task.  Game over, 1-0 Rangers.  But it=s Livingston who may feel the better afterwards.  Maybe there=s a reason for AThe Great Escape@ to have been tooting through the Rangers fans.  Me, I end up with that tune going through my head as I head for the Clockwork Orange.
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