Last night, during the MLS All-Star game vs. Celtic, Eric Wynalda described the rivalry between Celtic and the other Scottish powerhouse Rangers as, “like Auburn-Alabama times a hundred.” Now, I don’t normally like to blindly accept any subjective assessment, especially when it comes from the mouth of Eric Wynalda, so I decided to do a little research of my own. And what did I find? Well, Wynalda’s description was far from hyperbolic. In fact, it was probably an understatement.
For starters the clubs are both located in the same city, Glasgow, Scotland. The economic inequality in the Scottish Premier League basically guarantees that Celtic and Rangers are the only two clubs who compete for the league title. They’ve played 376 times, with Rangers holding a 149-135 edge. But the real basis of the rivalry lies in religious and social issues that go back over a century.
Celtic was formed in 1888 by Irish immigrants who had come to Scotland to escape the famine. Rangers, founded fifteen years earlier have always been “the Protestant club.” Matches between the teams were always tense affairs marked by mutual hatred of fans and players alike, but the troubles in Northern Ireland between the IRA and the UVF in the 1970s only intensified the rivalry. In his book Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper tells how a 1975 match led to two attempted murders, two cleaver attacks, one AXE ATTACK, nine stabbings and 35 common assaults. Religion, team and political association were dangerously intertwined as shown by this fan’s account:
When I was 16, I worked for my uncle in his pub in Dublin for a summer. After a trip to Belfast we were stopped at the border by the UDR (Ulster Defense Regiment) Basically, a Protestant paramilitary lynch mob backed by the British Army. Legally, they couldn't ask if you were [Catholic] or [Protestant] so they'd ask, while pointing a rifle at you, "Who do you support, Rangers or Celtic?"
The rivalry hasn’t faded in intensity over time. Celtic fans still boo during the Scottish national anthem and wave Irish flags, while Rangers supporters sing sectionalist songs. It wasn’t until 1989 that Rangers signed a Catholic player, and he’s still the only player to every play for both teams. In 1995 a man wearing a Celtic jersey was stabbed to death as he walked past a group of Rangers supporters. A report from a hospital union in Scotland from two years ago estimated that the number of assaults in Glasgow is nine times higher after a Celtic-Rangers match. Last year Celtic keeper Artur Boruc (who played in last night’s game) nearly started a riot when he made the sign of the cross during a match. The hate even seems to extend onto the pitch. A 2001 match led to brawl that saw 10 yellow cards and three reds.
Even players who have played in the notoriously hooligan prone EPL say they’ve never experienced anything like the Celtic-Rangers rivalry. I guess it makes Auburn-Bama look like a couple of friends playing grab-ass on the playground.A Rivalry Tied Up in Religion
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