Hounded Out -- Soccer's Oldest Sectarian Hatred

08/24/2010 11:39 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Glasgow, Scotland, is the lair of the soccer world's most famous sectarian hatred -- Glasgow Rangers Football Club, the bastion of Protestantism in Britain up against the Catholic, Glasgow Celtic Football Club, an altar of Irish nationalism and rebellion. They abhor each other. And the hatred has built castles of wealth for those who run the clubs. Even though Glasgow is Scotland's largest city, you'll be hard pushed to find Scotland flags flying in its soccer teams' stadiums -- at Rangers the mental battlements are adorned with the Union Jack of Britain, at Celtic the Irish Tricolor graces the tower. Should you look at a calendar in the city you will find that the date is 1690, the year the Protestants famously defeated Catholic troops in a battle on Irish soil -- 1-0 to Rangers.

You can confirm this chronological and dislocated freeze by asking the talented ex-Celtic player, Aiden McGeady, about why he fled recently. He was born in Glasgow. But he chose to play international soccer for Ireland, his ancestral home. So he came to represent everything that sectarian Rangers loathes -- a Catholic from Glasgow who plays for Celtic and chooses Ireland over Scotland, or in their minds, Britain, as Scotland is intractably part of the United Kingdom. McGeady is suspect, someone disloyal. So bigots threatened him with death. He is the ultimate "fenian" bastard -- translate as Catholic bastard. He now plays in Moscow, just far enough away to safely walk the streets.

Several years ago, the government, embarrassed and frightened by this soccer retrovirus that has plagued the Scottish game and Glaswegian society for more than a century, passed legislation allowing police to arrest individuals for sectarian incitement. The choir at Rangers could no longer throat the old favorite, "We're Up to Our Knees in Fenian Blood." This slit of desire for wading through the extracts from Catholic wounds now came with the possibility of imprisonment. At Celtic, rebel chorus about IRA killing of Protestants was also placed on the list. The clubs, also fearful of European soccer's authority, UEFA, banning teams for expressions of overt hatred inside stadiums, went along with the law. They encouraged their fans to sing songs free from an appetite for slaughter. For the hate mongers, this was hard to digest, and many refused to surrender to modernity's demands.

The poison still flows in homes, pubs and public displays of soccer-related violence in the city. Glasgow can be like hell's mouth when the leviathans take the field against each other. The two tribes need some version of this old war to survive. They feed on each other. The colors they wear are fine when money is to be made. But at what cost? Murders, knifing, fear. And the hounding out of players.

This summer, I went home to Glasgow. My American wife was wearing an Irish green raincoat and hat in the wrong neighborhood, a Rangers strip of land called Bridgeton. I had gone soft. I had forgotten the codes. A group of men in Rangers uniforms threatened her. The calendar said 1690. And like the fleeing footballer, Aiden McGeady, she wondered, what the hell is wrong with you people? This is the 21st century.

Alan Black is the author of Kick the Balls.

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