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Grant Wahl
May 17, 1999
After arriving in Glasgow, an American star experienced the fiercest soccer rivalry in the world: Celtic versus Rangers
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May 17, 1999

Holy War

After arriving in Glasgow, an American star experienced the fiercest soccer rivalry in the world: Celtic versus Rangers

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The Miseducation of Claudio Reyna ended abruptly in late April. Reyna, the U.S. soccer team captain, had just joined the Scottish powerhouse Glasgow Rangers, and one chilly afternoon he wore a green sweatshirt to practice. That's all it was, a simple green sweatshirt. To Glaswegians, though, the sport they call fitba is never simple, and if you're on Rangers turf, donning green—the color of hated rival Glasgow Celtic—is like wearing a yarmulke in Gaza or a Bulls jersey in a Crips hood. "What are you doing, Claudio?" said teammate Ian Ferguson. "Get that off you!"

Reyna may still be a newcomer to Glasgow, but please don't call him a greenhorn. Not after what took place on May 2 at Celtic Park, where he became the first American to play in Celtic-Rangers, the world's most bitter club rivalry. While soccer may have other hallowed matches—Barcelona-Real Madrid, Boca Juniors-River Plate in Buenos Aires, Roma-Lazio in Rome, Flamengo-Fluminense in Rio—none come close to matching Celtic-Rangers for a purity of hatred that involves politics, class and, above all, religion. In fin de siècle European sports there is no greater symbol of sectarian strife. Stabbings and bar fights in Glasgow, a city of 688,500, are regularly investigated for Celtic-Rangers links. And this year, as has often been the case, a Scottish championship was on the line. "There's nothing like it," says the 25-year-old Reyna. "All you can tell people is that you have to come here to believe it."

Believe this, if you can: 59,918 wild-eyed fans—neighbors, even—divided into two religious camps by a human wall of police. Two hours of eardrum-shattering noise, including chants about Catholic scum from one side and Irish Republican Army songs from the other. Hundreds of Union Jacks and Irish tricolors fanning the flames of nationalist bitterness. A referee beaned by a coin, his head spouting blood.

Imagine trying to play soccer amid all this, trying to clinch a title in front of a stadium full of people, most of whom hate you from the bottom of their souls. Only then will you have an idea of why Reyna sat slack-jawed at breakfast the next morning. "Sometimes you don't experience all those things in your entire career," he said. "They happened to me in the same game"

Welcome to the holy war universally known as the Old Firm, which has pitted Celtic's Irish Catholic faithful against Rangers' Protestant supporters for 111 years. A social organization founded in 1888 to aid Glasgow's poor Catholic immigrants, Celtic and its successful soccer team have aroused the undying resentment of the Protestant establishment, symbolized by blue-clad Rangers. It's why Rangers forward Paul Gascoigne famously celebrated a goal against Celtic by mimicking a flute player to commemorate William of Orange's victory over the Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. And it's why Celtic players take special pride in crossing themselves when they score against Rangers. "It's the last bastion of the sins of our fathers," says Ian McGarry, a soccer writer for the Scottish Daily Mail. "In the past the division represented itself in the workplace and in everyday society, but now the only place where it's still acceptable is a sporting occasion."

Americans may be surprised to learn the Old Firm hits close to home, and not just because of Reyna. If there's a lightning rod in this rivalry, it's Mo Johnston, a forward for MLS's Kansas City Wizards. In 1989 Johnston, a former Celtic star from Glasgow, became the first Catholic to sign with Rangers since World War I. The response was ugly: Rangers fans burned their team scarves and season tickets, while Celtic supporters, claiming Johnston had betrayed his religion, sent him death threats. Ten years later emotions still run high. Just check out Johnston's official Web site, which invites users to leave a message and "come harmoniously together in the guest book."

Harmoniously? Message 1, Celtic fan: "Mo you are still a c—-, but Celtic won the league and we didn't need a tosser like you.... Stay in America you traitor scum and if you set foot in Parkhead [Celtic Park] again I will tear your ugly ginger head from your scrawney [sic] wee body!" Message 2, Rangers fan: "Burn in hell you manky IRA loving tarriers!" Message 3, Celtic fan: "Up the IRA! Mo is a Protestant-loving Judas."

What would happen if Johnston ever came to Glasgow's heavily Catholic East End? "He'd be assaulted, and everyone here would just laugh," says Peter Rooney, 60, who's sipping whiskey at Bairds Bar, a tiny slice of Ireland, with its walls covered with photos of Celtic greats, posters of John F. Kennedy and a picture of Padraic Pearce, a famous IRA revolutionary. Rooney, a retired railroad worker, has sold programs at Celtic Park for 52 years, and he estimates that he has witnessed 2,500 Celtic matches, including every road game for the past five decades. He certainly knows his symbols. Besides wearing a shirt by team sponsor Umbro (Celtic supporters avoid wearing anything by Rangers sponsor Nike), Rooney doesn't own a single piece of clothing that is blue (not even jeans) or orange (for William of Orange). White-haired and rheumy-eyed, he speaks freely and smiles as often as he sips—until you ask him about Rangers. "It all comes down to Catholics and Protestants," he growls as an Irish jig thunders through the bar. "I hate them, and that won't ever change."

To understand why, hop into a taxi and head to the Louden Tavern, a Rangers shrine on Duke Street only 10 minutes from Bairds. ("That's an unusual one," says the cabbie. "I've never taken anyone from one to the other.") Bluer than a Caribbean lagoon, the Louden is loaded with enough symbols to infuriate any good Celtic fan. The outdoor sign bears the image of nine trophies (one for each Rangers championship from 1989 to '97), and inside, portraits of Rangers legends stare magisterially from the walls. The response to Bairds' IRA revolutionary is a painting of the Queen that guards the entrance. "The Old Firm? It's the Jews against the Arabs times a hundred," says owner Robert Marshall, an oak-necked man who encourages you to visit the Highlander, an equally rabid Rangers pub in...Puerto Rico.

If you're looking for the personification of this rivalry, though, your guy is seated in the corner. He's Paul Levery, a 30-year-old janitor who sports a gold earring, hair that's barely beyond skinhead length and two meaty fists that have pounded a few dozen Celtic fans in their day. Levery isn't one for introspection about the opposition. "They're animals," he says. "I hate everything they stand for, everything they believe in. As soon as I see them, my blood starts boiling." Asked why, he shrugs and says, "It's just the way I was brought up."

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