No chance to escape cycle of hate

SPENDING a sunny Easter Sunday afternoon watching the Old Firm match is one way to end up questioning your priorities in life.

The most widespread reaction at the end of two wasted hours was that the people happiest with the result would be Strathclyde Police.

Their chief constable had spoken on Friday of his concern that the combination of a big match, hot weather and a bank holiday — a fiesta in any other city, but a potential catastrophe in Glasgow — would lead to a spike in the rates of domestic abuse and rape.

Apparently a draw would be less likely to lead to mass violence than would a win for either side, so Celtic’s penalty-squandering striker Giorgios Samaras was the toast of the police department.

At the final whistle, the Rangers fans gloated over Neil Lennon, who recently, along with a lawyer and a politician who happen to support Celtic, became the intended recipient of mail bombs: “What’s it like to live in fear?” Lennon responded by dismissively raising his hands to his ears. Like most of the talking points around the Old Firm, the exchange between the Rangers fans and Lennon had nothing to do with football.

Given that the police have started to issue increasingly apocalyptic warnings ahead of every Old Firm match, how responsible is football for creating the atmosphere of hostility? Not very, on yesterday’s evidence. These teams are nothing to get excited about. If anything, the increasing rancour on the terraces may be a reaction to the grim featurelessness of the sporting spectacle. Glasgow’s continuing obsession with the religious wars of the 17th Century may mystify outsiders, but at least it gives the fans something to do.

Rangers started the match playing fast, inept football, while Celtic were slower yet also inept. After half an hour Rangers had run out of energy and slowed to Celtic’s tempo, while neither side had mustered an attempt on goal.

The defining confrontation of the match was between Rangers’ badger-headed, 40-year old captain David Weir and Celtic’s Penelope Cruz-lookalike Samaras. Weir, grim-faced and dripping with sweat as he forced his old bones into blocks and clearances, Samaras, 14 years younger yet still lacking the pace to beat his ancient opponent, conjuring new ways to waste possession.

Late in the second half, Anthony Stokes was the beneficiary of an astonishingly generous penalty decision that gave Celtic the chance to nick an unlikely victory. For some reason no Celtic player stepped forward to tear the ball out of the hands of Samaras, who was allowed to perpetrate the most inevitable penalty miss anyone could recall.

The presence of players like Weir and Samaras in the game shows how the quality of the Old Firm confrontation has collapsed. It must rankle with long-time supporters of what used to be great football institutions that even as the teams have withered into irrelevance they are increasingly finding themselves blamed for the wider woes of Scottish society.

Celtic and Rangers do provide Scotland’s most public arena for the expression of sectarian hostility but they did not create it. Recent efforts to stop the Rangers fans singing offensive songs are not going to address the underlying problem. The songs are the manifestation of something ugly in Scottish society, not the cause. The reason anti-Irish songs are rolling down from the stands at Ibrox is not that Rangers have incubated a unique culture of hate, but rather that a lot of people in Scotland apparently feel that way. And the reason that people beat each other up after Old Firm games is usually that they are very drunk, in which case the alcohol industry arguably has more of a case to answer than the football clubs.

The problem in Glasgow is bigger than the Old Firm clubs, while they are today its most visible symptom, it existed long before them, and they are not about to transcend it while they remain trapped in the SPL. They play each other too many times because there is nobody else to play — Sunday’s was the seventh Old Firm match of the season — and that claustrophobia feeds the intensity of the rivalry.

Old Firm fans who want to see their clubs play in a bigger league, whether in England or Europe, are usually thinking about the financial and sporting benefits to be gained from extra TV money, more attractive fixtures and so on. But the main benefits to the clubs and to the city would be social and psychological: the chance to escape from the perpetual cycle of confrontation with a single unchanging enemy.

The significance of Glasgow’s sectarian face-off is partly due to its being the only show in town. Glasgow football has been sealed off from the rest of the world for too long. It’s time to let the world in, if only to give the Glasgow factions something to think about apart from each other.

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