No surrender to UEFA bureaucrats
What is UEFA's Control and Disciplinary Body based in Nyon, Switzerland, doing debating the content of Rangers FC's chants?
‘Hullo, hullo, we are the Billy Boys!
Hullo, hullo, you’ll know us by our noise!
We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood!
Surrender or you’ll die!
For we are the Brigton Derry Boys!’
This ditty has been a favourite at Ibrox stadium in Glasgow, and anywhere else Rangers Football Club play, for as long as anyone can remember.
For readers who are not au fait with these things, the Billy Boys were a Glasgow street gang of the early twentieth century, based in the mainly Protestant Bridgeton, or Brigton, area. The name Fenian, taken from the North American-based Irish nationalist movement of the nineteenth century, has generally been used more liberally in Scotland as a term of abuse for Roman Catholics. Derry Boys is a reference to the apprentice boys of Derry, who defended the Protestant Irish city against its ousted Catholic British King James II in 1688-89. Come to think of it, the Billy Boys street gang took their name from his replacement ‘King Billy’, William of Orange, who ended the siege and finally James’ claim to the throne, ensuring Britain and Ireland would have a Protestant king.
Actually, you don’t need to know any of this. Suffice it to say that every so often, and with increasing regularity, somebody notices the song is a bit unsavoury. Between 1919 and 1989, Rangers had an unwritten policy of not signing Catholic players, and the hostility between the club’s traditionally Protestant fans and those of the traditionally Catholic Celtic FC is legendary. Hence, the song is thought to express a deep-rooted sectarianism in Scottish society. Actually it doesn’t, and that’s where things get complicated.
Just ask the Control and Disciplinary Body of the European football federation UEFA. Some wag reported Rangers to the body after a Champions’ League tie in Villareal in Spain on 22 February. Thus, this venerable committee of European bureaucrats sat in Nyon, Switzerland, to discuss whether the Rangers fans were guilty of something called ‘discriminatory chanting’. Their surreal ruling is worth quoting at some length.
‘After studying the evidence at hand as well as the statement of Rangers FC, the Control & Disciplinary Body conceded that supporters have been singing the song “Billy Boys” for years during national and international matches without either the Scottish football or governmental authorities being able to intervene. The result is that this song is now somehow tolerated. Given this social and historical context, the Control & Disciplinary Body said it considered that UEFA cannot demand an end to behaviour which has been tolerated for years. In view of the above, the Control & Disciplinary Body ruled that, despite the behaviour of its supporters, Rangers FC had not infringed Article 5 of the UEFA Disciplinary Regulations and cannot be punished according to Article 6.’ (1)
The committee members were obviously bewildered by the whole affair. The song clearly sets off all the alarm bells for offensiveness and seems just the sort of thing UEFA is committed to clamping down on. And yet, as they note, singing such songs is an utterly normal part of the game for Rangers fans, and it would indeed seem somewhat arbitrary and even unjust to start punishing it now. After scratching their heads for a bit, then, the Control and Disciplinary Body put it down to a cultural peculiarity they couldn’t begin to understand, and decided to leave it alone. (While the decision is ultimately sensible, this reasoning is obviously a bit of a cop-out, and by some strange procedure UEFA is currently appealing against its own verdict.)
In reality, of course, sectarian singing is not some inexplicable aspect of Scottish culture. The reason songs like ‘Billy Boys’ – and the Celtic fans’ equivalents, which tend to be about the IRA – have been tolerated for so long in Scottish football is that they are of no consequence beyond the games at which they are sung. Sectarianism is not a serious social problem in Scotland, deep-rooted or otherwise. Unlike in Northern Ireland for much of the last century, there is not widespread discrimination against Catholics (or Protestants for that matter) and Scottish society is not divided on religious lines. Rangers chairman David Murray has coined the term ’90-minute bigots’ to describe those fans who sing offensive songs during a match and then return to a normal life, working and socialising with Catholics.
For the most part, ‘sectarianism’ is simply the peculiar form taken in Scotland of the kind of football rivalry that exists across Britain, Europe and beyond. Fans on both sides do their damnedest to wind up the opposition with recourse to whatever cultural resources are at hand (and the songs have become so central to the fans’ identity that they are sung even in far-flung European cities where they make even less sense than in Glasgow). It would be absurd then to make the classical free speech case that such things are better argued out in the open rather than suppressed. There is no point in trying to argue Rangers fans out of sectarian beliefs they do not hold. By the same token, though, there is something bizarre about trying to prohibit their expression. In today’s censorious and disapproving cultural climate, however, the authorities are reluctant to leave this ‘problem’ alone.
UEFA is currently considering forcing national football associations to dock points from clubs whose fans sing racist or offensive songs and chants, and this proposal has supporters even among those in Scotland who understand perfectly well that football sectarianism is not what it seems. They just don’t like it. For many Scottish football writers, politicians and cultural figures, Rangers and Celtic fans are a source of deep embarrassment, and such draconian measures from the confused mandarins in Nyon would be most welcome.
Whatever happens, however, the fans have a certain resilience and ingenuity when it comes to ‘sectarianism’. Some songs have two sets of lyrics, one official and one more offensive. In the Rangers song ‘Follow, Follow’, for example, ‘Dundee, Hamilton, Aberdeen and back again’ can become ‘Dundee, Hamilton, Fuck the Pope and the Vatican’. Similarly, the line ‘Fuck the Pope and the IRA’ can be snuck into Tina Turner’s ‘Simply the Best’, an Ibrox favourite.
Moreover, both Rangers and Celtic fans are adept at playing the game of ‘political correctness’ (which is that much easier when you actually don’t hold bigoted views). At last Sunday’s Celtic-Rangers match, the final ‘Old Firm’ game of the season, both sets of fans displayed banners condemning sectarianism. And both sets of fans sang the songs they love.
(1) Reasons for Rangers decision, Uefa.com, 13 April 2006
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