Rangers after UEFA: just don’t call us plucky

We’d far rather stay as the team that everyone hates rather than be patronised as spirited, have-a-go heroes.

Dolan Cummings

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This article would have been a lot more fun to write if Rangers had won the UEFA Cup on Wednesday night. My point was going to have been that for all the criticisms of my team’s negative, ‘anti-football’ style of play, what matters is winning, and we won, so up yours. (Rangers fans are fond of singing ‘no-one likes us, we don’t care’.) The actual result, a fair 2-0 defeat, is a reminder that sporting glory, like any other kind of glory, is premised on the possibility of failure, and that shooting for glory rather than popularity makes failure all the harder.

In objective terms, the less-than-starry Rangers did very well to get as far as the final. But the campaign is hard to make sense of in objective terms. The UEFA Cup is very much the second string European club competition, with the real glory lying in the Champions’ League, from which Rangers were parachuted after failing to qualify from the group stage. (For non-football fans, that final is the one everyone is going on about, and it’s next week.) But neither of the UEFA Cup finalists are ‘comfortably’ second-string clubs, grateful just to be there.

There is a mismatch between the patronising attitude of English commentators, who note Rangers’ technical deficiencies while praising their ‘spirit’ and ‘competitiveness’, and the attitude of the fans themselves, who – for all their surprise when the club does well in Europe – always feel that it somehow should be doing better. This is not entirely delusional. Measured in domestic trophies, Rangers are the most successful club in the world, having won 51 championships and 56 cups; the trouble is that the domestic league in question is the Scottish one, which attracts little cash and less prestige. Rangers – like historic rivals Celtic, who similarly lost a UEFA Cup final five years ago – are a pike kept in a goldfish bowl, and consequently tend to play like goldfish when allowed out with the other pikes (as Eric Cantona might have said).

As for Rangers’ eventual conquerors, if few people had heard of Zenit St Petersburg till now, a clue to the reason for their emergence is to be found on the front of their jerseys: the club is sponsored by Gazprom, the Russian gas giant, which has bankrolled their recent success in Russian and now European football. Zenit boss Dick Advocaat managed Rangers 10 years ago, and there too he had money to spend – far more than his successors. He signed a number of fine players, and did well domestically, while making only a modest impression on European football. He will be hoping to do better at Zenit, and use Gazprom’s millions to establish them in the Champions’ League next season, rather than resting on their second string laurels.

Rangers will go back to aiming for ‘a good run’ in Europe next season, but we won’t thank neutral observers for praising this season’s relative success. In any case, Rangers’ European campaign does not fit easily into the patronising narrative of the plucky outsiders succeeding against the odds only to fail gloriously at the final hurdle. In fact, Rangers left a string of defeated managers and starry players complaining about their ‘anti-football’. Lacking really top-quality players, manager Walter Smith employed something like the unpopular Italian strategy of catenaccio (rebranded Watenaccio in his honour), essentially playing ultra-defensively to prevent the opposition from using their superior talents. C’est la guerre, mais ce n’est pas magnifique.

Neutral observers much prefer their plucky outsiders to make suicidal forays into the superior opposition’s half. Neutrals love teams who have a ‘free-flowing, attacking style of football’, or like Brazil, ‘play to the rhythm of the samba’. Unless you are Brazil, this is just stupid. Football is a competitive sport, not a form of entertainment, and judging teams on their artistic expression is ultimately condescending. (Think of the patronising clichés about African teams ‘playing with smiles on their faces’.) Fans are entitled to complain if they don’t like how their own team is playing, but most of us are more interested in winning, or at least having a fighting chance. Club football is played for the fans; neutrals and the commentariat can watch Strictly Come Dancing if they don’t like it.

Once you’ve got to a final, the only alternative to victory is bitter disappointment: there is no escaping the conclusion that Rangers’ luck ran out. As the eyes of the footballing world turn to next week’s ‘proper’ European Cup final, however, Rangers have a hectic schedule of three league games in the next six days, thanks in part to their European run. Win them all, and we win the championship. Lose or draw even one, and we can expect no credit for coming second. It’s unlikely to be pretty, but it is the stuff of life.

Dolan Cummings is editorial director of the Institute of Ideas. He contributed a chapter, ‘Confessions of a Justified Rangers Supporter’, to the book It’s Rangers for Me.

spiked‘s regular sports columnist Duleep Allirajah, a supporter of Crystal Palace who were soundly beaten by Bristol City in the Championship playoffs on Tuesday night, is unwell.

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