Offside, 6 February
Heaven forbid that Celtic and Rangers should dampen their sectarian hatreds.
Last week I sacrificed my weekly dose of Footballers’ Wives to conduct some field research north of the border at Celtic Park in Glasgow (field research, geddit?…oh never mind).
I was seated in the area that used to be known as the ‘Jungle’, the terrace from which Celtic’s fanatical supporters once roared their team on. Today it is anything but a jungle. ‘Shrubbery’ might be a more apposite nickname such was the chronic lack of atmosphere. The attendance was 55,000 but you could hear a rosary bead drop.
Certainly Celtic’s lacklustre opponents Dundee United, currently propping up the Scottish Premier League, didn’t help matters. Celtic completed a perfunctory 2-0 victory and, maybe I was nodding off when it happened, but United didn’t manage a single shot on target. It’s hard to rouse any strong feelings for inept opponents whose travelling support could comfortably fit in a couple of Glasgow taxis. There were the occasional jeers whenever a former Rangers player was on the ball but otherwise the magnificent stadium was deathly quiet.
Celtic fans told me that most home games are like this. It is only on big European nights or when Celtic entertain their arch-rivals Rangers that Celtic Park becomes a cauldron of noise. What Scottish football needs is more of the passionate animosity that makes the atmosphere at Old Firm games so electric, right?
Wrong. In December 2002, a Scottish Executive cross-party working group unveiled a raft of measures designed to eradicate religious hatred and ‘football-related sectarianism’ in particular (1). ‘Modern Scotland must challenge bigoted attitudes and bigoted behaviour wherever they are found’, declared Scotland’s first minister Jack McConnell.
The working group recommended that crimes motivated by religious prejudice should attract stiffer sentences; that football clubs should be required to introduce anti-sectarian policies; that action should be taken against supporters ‘indulging in insulting sectarian behaviour’; and that street traders be prevented from selling ‘offensive sectarian material’ outside football grounds.
What exactly could this mean? Will Rangers fans be arrested for singing the national anthem or Celtic fans prohibited from making the ‘sign of the cross’? The Scottish Catholic Church reacted furiously to the suggestion in the report that using the sign of the cross ‘to alarm, upset or provoke others’ might be construed as a sectarian offence. ‘These proposals strike at the heart of people’s personal religious beliefs’, said a church spokesman. ‘To prosecute someone for crossing themselves would be absurd.’
Absurd indeed, but the Catholic priests needn’t get their robes in a twist. The intended target is not religious hatred but the Old Firm rivalry itself. Take away the ferocious animosity between Rangers and Celtic and what is left? It’s hard to believe that religious hatred is a problem in a country where nearly 60 percent of Scots say they never go to church. (I will probably now be deluged with complaints from Protestants who’ve been chinned by drunken papists following heated pub debates about transubstantiation.)
Even the cross-party working group admitted that the lack of ‘accessible research on sectarianism, religious hatred and discrimination in contemporary Scotland…makes it difficult to estimate the number of cases involving religious hatred or to gauge the wider extent of the problem’. So, there you have it: a raft of measures to tackle a problem that may not actually exist.
The fact is that Scottish political life is not organised along sectarian lines, inter-faith marriages are common, and Catholics and Protestants generally co-exist peacefully – except when they wear the colours of Rangers or Celtic. As Simon Kuper argues in his book Football Against the Enemy, the Old Firm rivalry is a phenomenon that has ‘outlived religious hatred’ (2).
The trading of sectarian insults at Old Firm games may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I wouldn’t want to see it disappear. When Celtic play Rangers the only people in the stadium who are not ‘indulging in insulting sectarian behaviour’ are the referee and linesmen.
Taunting the opposition with sectarian songs is what makes the atmosphere at Old Firm derbies so electric. If Celtic and Rangers fans stopped hating each other and started respecting each other’s cultural traditions the greatest rivalry in British football would die.
(1) Tackling religious hatred: report of the Scottish Executive’s cross-party working group on religious hatred, December 2002
(2) Simon Kuper, Football Against the Enemy, 1994
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