Last night’s Scottish Cup match between Celtic and Rangers was the fifth Old Firm derby of the 2010-2011 season, but it sometimes feels like Glasgow football supporters have asked the perennial question, Can we play you every week? and the Scottish F.A. has answered in the affirmative.
With the unlikely figure of El Haj Diouf apparently at the centre of tensions on (and off) the pitch, the match erupted into a predictable mixture of childish abuse and real violence. On Twitter, fans and non-fans seemed to be enjoying the fisticuffs more than the football. That seems a shame – or maybe the football wasn’t very entertaining. I don’t know because I won’t watch Old Firm derbies.
I was reminded of a Radio 5 Live phone-in a few years back when Alan Green received a call from a worse-for-wear fan of Celtic/Rangers (I neither know nor care) who was only interested in making some unpleasant sectarian remarks. Although I often find Belfast-born Green irritating, I had to applaud him for his reaction. He said (and I paraphrase): “Where I come from, son, that sort of thing leads to people being killed.”
I support a club, Ipswich Town, which has an intense local rivalry. It has been dubbed the “Old Farm” derby, but that’s a media creation, as is the term “Tractor Boys.” No-one should underestimate the feeling between supporters of the two East Anglian clubs. There is occasional trouble, but it’s relatively minor and the rivalry usually stops with the football. I’m sure that applies in Sheffield, Manchester, even in Liverpool, but things are very different in Glasgow.
Have no doubt about it, the Old Firm rivalry is sectarian. I won’t rehearse the background to it here. There are lots of reasons why the Irish Sea ferries are full of Rangers and Celtic fans when these matches take place and many of them are nothing to do with sport. It’s hard to imagine any other such hatred being tolerated, let alone celebrated. Kick It Out, the campaign against racism in football, which also campaigns against sectarianism and homophobia, is reporting this morning on racist abuse suffered by Diouf at last night’s game [http://www.kickitout.org/news.php/news_id/5038] but Celtic supporters were posting photographs on the internet last night of Rangers’ fans giving Nazi salutes before the game had even started.
It’s easy to bandy statistics about but they are shocking. Violence in Glasgow increases dramatically on days when the Old Firm matches take place and although in 2010 the BBC stated there had been a 24% decrease in (reported) domestic violence incidents on match days [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/8557504.stm], it’s a decrease on the 88% increase in domestic violence on derby days that was reported in 2009. The figures are still appalling and match-related violence in general is on the increase. And let no-one forget that domestic violence often involves the abuse of children as well as women.
For anyone who thinks that sectarianism in Glasgow is a kind of “fun” version of that in Northern Ireland (Troubles Lite, perhaps), I can recommend the 1975 film on the subject Just Another Saturday (with a cameo by Billy Connolly). There is too much history – well, not history exactly, it’s based on prejudice, not historical research. Why on earth are Rangers supporters still singing about a famine that took place in the 1840s? OK, so some English fans sing songs about the Munich disaster, but that doesn’t make it all right. That’s all wrong too.
The saddest thing for me about the resurgence of sectarianism yesterday was that it was on the same day that the Ireland cricket team performed so brilliantly in the Cricket World Cup in Bengaluru, India. Like the Ireland Rugby Union team, it represents the entire island of Ireland and does not seem to attract the same hostilities and rivalries. I look forward to the day when there is an All-Ireland football team. Think how much better the football team would be for one thing.
And, while we’re thinking along those lines, Glasgow United, anyone? No. Thought not.