Sports rivalries and why we love them: Celtic vs. Rangers

Celtic fans show their love for the Rangers. via celtic.theoffside.com

This is the final piece of my travel series, and ironically, actually the first piece I intended to post. About three weeks ago, my brother and I were in Glasgow and without realizing it, we stumbled in to a pub around 5:30 in the afternoon on the 4th of May not expecting much of anything except cold beer and a football game. What we got was one of the greatest rivalries in sports coming to life before our very (ignorant) eyes; Celtic vs Rangers, the bloodiest and one of the most incredibly complicated, political, social and even religious rivalries to ever exist in sport. The Scottish Premiership is a truly elite level of football, just as intensely competitive as the top English league, but because Scotland is so much smaller, the rivalries tend to be that much more intense.

The face of the Scottish Protestant and Unionist community. via upload.wikimedia.org

The Celtic Ranger rivalry has been the most dominant rivalry in Scotland dating back to 1888. In more than 122 years, only 16 players have played for both teams. To put it in perspective, in the 30 years of the battle of Alberta, more than half that amount have played for both the Oilers and the Flames. The most unusual part of this old Scottish rivalry is how intensely religious and political it actually is. Now, of course I didn't know anything about this until arriving in the pub and not knowing which side of it to sit on. A couple locals asked us if we were Catholic or Protestant, of which my brother and I are neither, so they told us we could sit anywhere we liked, but may face consequences depending on the score. We sat at the bar right in the middle, so as to stay out of the lines of fire but still have a good view of the screen.

To be more specific, the Rangers, who have been an active football club since 1873, are more closely aligned with protestantism and British/Scottish loyalists, while Celtic F.C. is predominantly catholic, with political sympathies given to Irish freedom fighters.The Rangers have had only 4 Catholics to ever play for them and will avoid drafting or trading for Catholic players almost as a rule. As a left leaning Jew, I really felt like this was not my fight, and just quietly drank my MacEwans 80 without lending support in any particular direction.

The Pride of Glasgow. via upload.wikimedia.org

The rivalry itself dates back to 1888, when Celtic F.C. debuted; of course their very first match was against the Rangers, so this rivalry has some serious history. Under current Scottish Premiership rules, the teams play each other 4 times a year, but given that both teams are based in Glasgow, home field advantage doesn't really apply, aside from maybe in the locker rooms. Fans of both clubs have a history of violent disagreement, much of which has been curbed by both clubs in recent years. Sectarian fight songs, hooliganism and annoying flag waving (Irish vs. Scottish) have been banned, and the increased usage of surveillance technology at matches has taken the rivalry down a notch. The fans are still just as passionate as ever, just now they come with 80% fewer death threats per game. Celtic now even has a program to combat bigotry and racsim in the community that was launched in 1996, with the Rangers joining in to help the cause a year later. As of the May 4th match that I watched, Rangers and Celtic had played each other 388 times, with Rangers winning 155 matches, Celtic 140 matches and 93 draws.

We can talk all we want about the Oilers dominance of the 80s, and the fact that between the Oilers and Flames, 6 of 7 Stanley cups between 1984-1990 were won by Alberta teams, but the fact that at different times in their respective histories, both Celtic and the Rangers won 9 Scottish league championships in a row is really dammed impressive. Essentially, these two great teams, known collectively as the Old Firm, are two of the most dominant teams of any professional sport, ever--and they're in the same city. To be honest, the way some of the fans were in that pub that afternoon, I'm surprised Glasgow hasn't burned to the ground; yet throughout it all, there was still a deep sense of affinity and mutual respect between fans of both clubs, something that we rarely see between Oilers and Flames fans (Kent from Flames Nation aside...you do some good work there...), at least at home. A few years ago I was living in Windsor, and I had a friend in Law school from Calgary. We had a mutual respect for each other and went to watch games together fairly regularly, each of us wearing our colors with pride. The deal was loser pays the tab, unless it was a shootout loss-then it's a split bill, and we both agreed to support the other side if they happened to be playing the Leafs. I think the only reason we were able to stand it was because we were the only Albertans for miles, and that being that close to the Toronto hockey market was a fate worse than death, something almost any hockey fan outside of the GTA can probably agree on.

Sports rivalries are an interesting thing. In Canada, it seems to be based purely on a sort of civic pride, an obligation to root for the home team blindly and get worked into a frenzy about every little detail. I suppose that is what comes about living in places like Edmonton and Calgary, with very little history, particularly lacking the often violent social and political histories that have the capacity to shape the demographic make-up of any one place. That is what makes the Celtic/Rangers rivalry so interesting and unique. It was not about blind love of the city, but rather about the political and social realities that made up a place like Glasgow in the 1880s that still ring true today. The history shapes the rivalry, which continues to grow and influence modern life and new historical interpretations of life in that particular place and time. Sports isn't an empty, vapid passion for men with too much time on their hands and an excuse for dumb hooligans to get drunk and start riots; it is a reflection of culture, of passion and of collective pride and feeling like a part of something bigger than any one person. It is emotional, it is political, and most of all, at least 4 times a year in Glasgow, it is a very real reminder of where the city has been and where it will go in the future.

By the way, Celtic won 2-1, but the Rangers took the league championship again this season. It was a great game to watch, and I am grateful for the locals who represented both clubs who took the time to give the history lessons I needed to have any idea what was going on underneath the pretext of the football match.

This concludes my series from the Eurodesk. Thank you for reading, and of course thanks to Derek, Bruce, Scott, Ben and Jonathan for letting me write these columns on their site.

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