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The Old Firm - how a football rivalry dictates the lives of Glaswegians

By Horace Choi:


In May, the decisive defeat of the European Super League proposals showed the world the resilience and unity among football fans. It shows how important clubs are to their fans; it goes far beyond the sport itself, and almost becomes a way of life. The Old Firm, contested between Celtic and Rangers in Glasgow, is a perfect example for this. While most rivalries are brewed from geographical proximity, such as the Manchester derby, or clubs fighting for similar positions, such as Manchester United vs Liverpool, the Old Firm also involves historical, religious, social and political issues.


At any Old Firm meeting, a striking feature may be the lack of Scottish flags around the stadium - Celtic fans typically wave the Irish tricolour, while Rangers fans, the Union Jack. This goes back to the late 19th century, when Celtic was founded by a Catholic Church with the aim of alleviating poverty within the Irish immigrant population in Glasgow. The rivalry soon became defined by religion, where almost any Catholics in Glasgow (and to a lesser extent, in the rest of Scotland and Ireland) would naturally support Celtic, and Protestants would back Rangers. This religious tension was exacerbated by events in Ireland in the 20th century, such as the War of Independence in the 1910s and 20s, and the Troubles from the 70s to 90s.


This aspect of the rivalry is perhaps best demonstrated by a Rangers transfer policy which saw no openly Catholic player join the club from the 1920s until 1989. Even the legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, although a Protestant himself, admitted he suffered hostility while playing for Rangers, because he had a Catholic wife. While Celtic’s club officials were less openly sectarian, their fans have always held its Catholic and Irish roots close to their hearts: one of their chants most commonly heard when playing against Rangers, ‘the Soldier’s Song’, is the Irish national anthem, composed with a background of Catholic Irishmen fighting against the Protestant British.


Stemmed from their rich history, the rivalry also stretches to political differences. Although the Scottish political landscape has now changed, there was a long-standing cliche that Rangers fans voted Conservative, and Celtic fans, Labour. Although these party alignments may no longer be true, Rangers fans are still seen to be socially conservative and more right-wing than their Celtic counterparts, who are typically socialists. This can be demonstrated by Celtic fans’ recent support for Palestinians by waving the Palestinian flag, while Ranger fans have largely remained silent or showed support for Israel.


However, surprisingly, between the two sets of fans there is little difference with regards to opinion about Scottish Independence, which is perhaps the biggest political topic in Scotland in recent years. In a poll before the 2014 referendum, 48% of Celtic fans planned to vote in favour of an independent Scotland while 40% were against; for Rangers fans it was 45% for and 41% against. Indeed, every constituency in Glasgow voted in favour of independence eventually; this may be because the disaffection towards Westminster politics was felt by all, regardless of religion and political ideology. However, the most vocal of Rangers fans nonetheless voiced their opinion against independence in stadiums - they are, understandably, Unionist regarding Ireland and Northern Ireland, and therefore applied the same ideology towards Scotland.


Evidently, the Old Firm goes far beyond the football pitch, and is a way of life for many Glaswegians. This is, of course, a degree of loyalty which most football fans can only look up to; but should it be glorified as the perfect image of football fan culture?


As is the case across Great Britain, football rivalries often become associated with hooliganism and violence. The Old Firm is no exception, even though the Catholic and Protestant communities tend to live in different parts of Glasgow and so have fewer opportunities of interacting. With that being said, in the 1970s and 80s, the heyday of British football hooliganism, which also coincided with the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Old Firm fixtures often ended up with dozens of arrests and injuries among fans.


In fact, one of the biggest criticisms of the Old Firm comes as a reverse of this causal relationship: football acts as a fuel for sectarianism in Glasgow. Sectarianism has otherwise been decreasing in the city: inter-religious mixing has increased and marriages are now commonplace; also, Catholics and Protestants are now no longer the two dominant groups in Glasgow, with an increase in irreligious people and an influx of the Muslim community. The aforementioned Rangers transfer policy would now be unacceptable even for the most devout of Protestants. The biggest aspect of Glaswegian life that remains dictated by sectarianism is football, which simply pushes the two sets of fans further away from each other, and reminds them about their differences.


If religion, and perhaps Irish politics, are to be stripped from the traditions around the Old Firm, the most fierce football rivalry in the world, it would be a trade-off from authenticity and history, to peace and unity in a Glasgow which brings the best out of both Catholic and Protestant communities. Would it be a trade-off worth making? Perhaps only then would football truly become the sport of the people?




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