The newspapers say solemnly that it is merely another football match. But actually the New Year's soccer game in Glasgow, Scotland is less a game than an excuse for an unbridled outbreak of religious bigotry. Down the years, since the series of contests between a Protestant and a Catholic team began, a stadium has been burned, a player has been killed and there have been countless other casualties, mostly unreported by newspapers, which would never admit that their readers would do any such thing.
Oddly, the first game between the Catholic Celtics and the Protestant Rangers, back in the 1880s, was so trouble-free that after the Celtics' 5-2 victory all the players went out for an evening of beery conviviality. For several years thereafter relations were civilized if not warm. Then came the riot of 1909. Miffed when officials would not allow an overtime after the Rangers and Celtics had played to a tie, the crowd went berserk. Stoked by whisky, a bonfire of shattered goalposts spread its flames into the stadium, firemen's hoses were slashed by knives, 58 constables and dozens of spectators were injured and it took a cavalry charge to stop the brawling.
Now that such a precedent had been established, the tempo picked up. Three years later a number of strongly anti-Catholic ship workers moved to Glasgow from Ulster in Northern Ireland, and the Ranger-Celtic matches proved an excellent place to expose their religious prejudices. Similarly, a sports paper began ridiculing Celtic players as Neanderthal men dressed in shabby Irish costume. By 1931, when a talented young Celtic goalkeeper was accidentally killed by a Ranger's kick to the head, the game had deteriorated into a form of war.
So it remains today. Although the Celtics allow non-Catholics on their team, the Rangers are exclusively Protestant. "I deny we promote this antagonism for business ends," says a Ranger officer (although the game enables both clubs to pay yearly dividends of 20% to 30%), but he admits, "If I advocated a Catholic for the Rangers I would be blackballed forever out of city life."
The program for this year's match carried an ominous warning: "Stringent measures will be taken by the police against disorderly behavior by any spectator. This includes the waving of flags or banners of any description or the singing or chanting of any words we at the stadium never want to hear." What words? To understand this allusion, it must first be explained that just as the game of soccer spread from this cold, grim island south across the world, so the New World is now redressing the balance of the Old. It is from Latin America that the Celtic fans have borrowed their new chant, with its clap-clap-clap: "Cel-tic, cha-cha-cha! Cel-tic, cha-cha-cha!" to which the Ranger fans have been responding: "Curse the Pope, cha-cha-cha! Curse the Pope, cha-cha-cha!" It is an old joke in Glasgow that the Rangers have more supporters than the Celtics because it is easier to say "Curse the Pope" than "Curse the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland."
Mercifully, this year's game, a 4-0 blitz by the Rangers, went off with limited bottle-bashing and fighting. There were only 14 arrests and a small number of litter cases. Will the war go on forever? Probably, unless the Rangers liberalize their rule against Catholic players. One hopeful suggestion was put forward by a Marist Brother recently: "Until a Catholic Ranger scores against a Celtic team," he wrote, "the tension will persist. Then the rabble will be bewildered and all its fire extinguished."