Eddie Arana, Rick Thibodeau, & Chris Bakunas San Diego, Ca. March 2012

Eddie Arana, Rick Thibodeau, & Chris Bakunas San Diego, Ca. March 2012
Eddie Arana, Rick Thibodeau, & Chris Bakunas at Luche Libre Taco Shop in San Diego, March 2012

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Old Firm Match, Glasgow Scotland, January 2nd 1998

             Celtic Park, the home of Celtic F.C in the Parkhead neighborhood of Glasgow

It was while we were watching Colombia easily take apart Greece that the question was asked. Had I, as an American, ever attended a "real" soccer football game?

My answer, which was met with not a little doubt, was; "Yes, I have. I've been to an Old Firm match in Glasgow."

My answer was greeted with a "Pics or it didn't happen," response, so naturally, I pulled out a photo album and presented the proof.

                     Celtic supporters generally identify with Irish Catholics, hence the Irish tricolor

It was, of course, when I was living in Glasgow. A friend, Mark W. was a Celtic season ticket holder and offered me a seat at the 1998 New Years Day Old Firm match (pronounced "Ne'ers" and played on January 2nd). I had never attended a soccer football match and I had no idea what to expect, but Mark assured me I would have the time of my life.

The "Old Firm," I should explain, is the collective term used for the rivalry between the Glasgow Celtic F.C and the Glasgow Rangers F.C.

The two teams, which have home stadiums that sit more than 50,000 fans each located less than 5 miles from one another, have played each other 399 times. The Old Firm match I witnessed was match number 350 or so.

  Notice the San Diego Padres baseball hat. Pretty certain that's the first one ever seen at Parkhead 

From the minute we parked I knew this was going to be an experience completely unlike any I had ever had at a sporting event in the States. For starters, we had to give a few pounds to a group of ragamuffins to ensure that Mark's car was unharmed while we watched the match - Mark explained that was just how it worked in the east end of Glasgow.

Inside the stadium, I was surprised to find legal sports books all over the place, plus a split-the-pot raffle. The clubs were originally organised to raise funds for charities, and they still do - but they also contribute more than 100 million pounds annually to the local economy (hence the term "Old Firm," btw)

We sat on the Celtic supporters side, which was kept separate from the Rangers supporters side by a large contingent of police that divided the stadium in two, with an entire row of seats left empty between the two sides.

                     All those yellow jackets are police...gotta keep 'em separated indeed

The supporters have to be kept apart for a number of reasons, the least of which is football related. The worst of which is, unfortunately, religious. The Rangers supporters have traditionally been Protestant, while the supporters of the Celtic have traditionally been Catholic. 

Add to that the socialist/conservative & national identity divides, and well, it barely leaves room for an actual sports rivalry.

The funny thing to me was, at the time, Rangers best player was an Italian Catholic, and Celtic's best player was a Norwegian Protestant. The irony was tangible.

                              Rangers Goalie Andy Goram is about to be scored on   

Despite the fact that the fans are kept apart, they still manage to nettle each other. Both sides sing and chant snide digs at their foes. The one that cracked me up the most was sung by the Celtic supporters, aimed at the Rangers manager, Walter Smith, sung to the tune of the Monkee's classic, Daydream Believer.

Try to imagine 30,000 people singing, "Poor old Walter Smith, oh what can it mean, to be a shite football captain for a shite football team..." 

                                             Harald Brattbakk misses by inches...

The place was electric from the minute the match started until the final whistle - it actually felt as if a riot could break out at any moment. Not one person sat down through the entire match, and the energy of the crowd was nuclear. 

I have been fortunate enough to attend the NBA and Stanley Cup finals, the Superbowl and the World Series. None of those games can compare to the excitement of the Old Firm match I attended on January 2nd of 1998. There's not even a close second.

Celtic won 2-0 to bring an end to Rangers 9-game winning streak, and to turn their own season around. Immediately after the game ended Mark and I rushed out to Mark's car so that he could race home to watch the broadcast of the match on television - the match is broadcast after it has been played, and oddly enough, all the people who just watched it live watch it again on television!

Well, probably the supporters of the winning side watch it again - I can't imagine the supporters of the losing side wanting to relive the defeat.

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