Monday, June 13, 2011

Scotland was quite similar to Belgium: big league, increasingly in trouble, and dominated by two giant clubs. Unlike the Belgians, the Scots were passionate about football, but with television and other reasons, the interest was no longer focused on most of the local clubs. There was nothing new in the migration of players to England, but now it looked like the fans were kind of migrating as well, preferring to watch English football in their cozy homes instead of suffering winds and chills at the stands. To a point, the bright Scottish national team of 1974 World Cup summarized the acute problem: there practically no Scottish-based players in it. Which clearly meant that Scottish clubs were no longer able to keep any talent at home – correspondingly, fans decreased having nothing good to watch. Reform was in the air: 1974-75 was the last ‘big league’ season – for the next the Premier League was drastically reduced from 18 to 10 teams. The last ‘big’ season produced a change in the shape of new champion: yet, unlike the rest of Europe, this was not a small, barely known club popping out, but an old horse. Very old one indeed – Glasgow Rangers. Which requires a few more words.
Scottish football was reduced to bare duel between Rangers and Celtic long time ago, yet this is to say practically nothing, except that the giant clubs contributed to the crisis of the other clubs by increasing their fans at the expense of others. The really important thing is that Rangers vs Celtic is the oldest derby in the world, the ‘mother of them all’. It is also unique: most ‘continental’ derbies are generally simple oppositions – rich vs poor; people vs government; the province vs the capital; the agricultural South vs industrial North. In Glasgow it is much more complex – all what the ‘continental’ (in British idiom, ‘continental’ is not just Europe, but the rest of the world outside British Isles) derbies represent plus additional hatreds. Geographically, the derby spreads an arm across the channel into Northern Ireland as well and to the point when is hard to tell where the derby is more dangerous – in Glasgow or in Belfast. In general, Celtic are Irish and Catholic, therefore, ‘foreign’, and Rangers are Protestant and Scottish, therefore ‘natives’. Along these demarcation lines everything else piles up – economy, politics, racism, you name it. The divide represents vast and old problems and means a lot in real life. At derby day it is a war – Catholic (Celtic) and Protestant (Rangers) fans from Northern Ireland travel by separate ferries, for if put together they will fight to death and sunk the boat as well. Once surviving the trials at sea, the Irish battalions join their respected land armies and now they can fight at earnest. And fighting is not reserved for the fans only – players fight on the pitch. In fact, Celtic and Rangers go berserk when playing against each other. ‘Continental’ derbies are fierce, but really a sissy game by Glaswegian standards: players mostly simulate, spit and swear at each other, complain to the referee. In Glasgow it is real battle, where everybody kicks the opposition with no regard for own damages. There are no stretchers rushing to the pitch to help suddenly dead player – stretchers come only in case someone is in a coma, preferably a coma he never comes back from. Now, that is a true hero! The derby is not football at all – by the admissions of former players from both clubs, playing football never crossed anybody’s mind. Now, ‘continental’ derbies are generally fighting too, but occasionally produce great football as well – the Old Firm is especially ugly in contrast, and is practically never interesting to watch as a game. What the derby reminds mostly of is the medieval village ‘football’ – where the peasants kicked a giant ball for a quite practical purpose: temporary settlement of disputed land. After the wounded are bandaged and the dead – buried, the ‘winners’ keep possession of the field for a year, when everything is ‘played’ again.
Rangers had a great reason for joy in 1975 – they became champions!
Beating Celtic is always cherished, yet, 1975 was special: Rangers were champions for the first time since 1964! Ten years of suffering and what a suffering – Celtic won 9 titles in succession! Celtic won the European Champions Cup. Now, Rangers won the Cup Winners Cup in 1972 , but it was sill a humiliation – winning only the second best European tournament and 5 years after Celtic’s triumph. On top of it, Celtic were still champions when Rangers celebrated their 100 years in the game in 1973. But what a rich revenge: in 1975 Rangers not only broke the bed spell, but prevented Celtic from winning 10 titles in a row. And Ibrox was still a stadium for over 100 000 fans! Bleachers, naturally, are the best place for fighting and celebrating.
As for the team, it was great only in Scottish eyes. Yes, there were Jardine, Johnstone, Forsyth, McCloy, Conn… none of them really was a huge star by international standards and with few exceptions, the boys went to English clubs. Small comfort that Celtic were no better in 1975 – Scottish football was drained from talent.