Over the past four months I’ve spent a lot of time in Glasgow asking football fans there why they hate each other so much. Not for fun – we’ve been making a documentary about the bitter rivalry between the city’s two main football clubs, Rangers and Celtic, for a new VICE series called Rivals. You can watch the trailer for it above, and the episodes start rolling out on Monday (March 19th).
This feud between the “Old Firm” – a term both sets of fans despise, because it lumps them in together – is over a century old. The political and religious disagreements that fuel it go back even further. But there were a number of reasons why now seemed like a good time to investigate British sport’s most famous mutual loathing.
Last year, someone – maybe Rangers fans, maybe not – developed an appetite for sending Celtic manager Neil Lennon bullets and explosives in the post. These threats to Lennon’s life created an atmosphere in Glasgow so poisonous that the government decided to step in and push through a new bill, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act. Under the bill, which came into force at the start of March 2012, anyone caught singing nasty songs about Protestants or Catholics faces jail.
What’s more, on February 14th this year, Rangers were forced into administration over an unpaid tax bill of £9 million. If the club goes bust, Celtic fans have made promises in song to celebrate it as they would the death of Thatcher: by gorging on jelly and ice cream.
The complex tangle of sectarian prejudice isn’t helped by the clichéd version of the rivalry pushed by the media. It’s a lot easier to hate a cliché than it is to slash a man who may believe in Home Rule for Ireland, but who doesn’t go around leaving nail bombs in bins near the Queen.
Glasgow’s a complicated place, and the shades of grey were everywhere. I’d barely been in the city an hour on my final visit in March when a Rangers fan attacked me in the street, screaming: “Ahm gonna crack ye, ye fuhken Anglish wangker.” But this was a Rangers fan – they’re supposed to love Britain. And I’m British. This was not a brotherly act.
Glasgow’s confusing football rivalry is perhaps best personified in a guy named Abdul Rafiq. He’s a Rangers fan who’s been banned from all football grounds for five years for singing anti-Catholic songs. He also happens to be the only Muslim member of right-wing nationalist group the English Defence League. We’re pretty much BFFs now, so I called him up for a chat.
VICE: Hello Abdul, how did you get your banning order?
Abdul Rafiq: I was at a Rangers-Chelsea match in August. Some Chelsea fans recognised me from EDL meetings and asked me to sing the “Follow, Follow” song. But I added on the bad bit.
What’s the bad bit?
“Dundee, Hamilton, fuck the Pope and the Vatican.”
OK. Were you the only person singing it?
Lots of people were. But I was probably singing it loudest and I was waving a Union Jack flag around. I was also one of the only people “of colour” in the crowd. Now I have to sign in at the police station every time Rangers play.
Do you really hate Celtic fans and Catholics?
No. I bumped into Neil Lennon a few years ago in Glasgow city centre. I shook his hand and apologised for all the abuse he’s taken. And he said, “I don’t mind a bit of banter on the pitch, but it’s different when I’m walking down the street and people want to physically attack me.” And then of course lately there’s been the death threats and the parcel bombs.
Can you understand why people get confused when they see you hanging around with the EDL?
They’re not racists, like the BNP. They’re only against Islamic extremists.
Have you ever had abuse from EDL members?
No, ’cos they all know who I am. They all say, “I wish we had more like you. More Muslims.”
Do you ever think that the EDL might be using you as a shield for their own prejudice? As a way to say, “Look, we can’t be Islamophobic because one of us is a Muslim”?
A racist would be proud to be a racist. Why would he want to hide it? Everywhere I go, EDL people want to stop and shake my hand. They want their pictures taken with me.
But you are the only Muslim member of the EDL and in that way you are a novelty to them, Abdul.
But if you hated coloured people, why would you be seen hugging a coloured person?
What would you do if Rangers went bust?
I guess I wouldn’t have to go to the police station all the time.
What do you think Glasgow would be like without the rivalry?
If you didn’t have other people to slag off and have banter with, it would be very boring.
Photo by Chris O'Neill
Follow Kev on Twitter: @kevkharas
You can watch Rivals: Rangers & Celtic at VICE.com from this coming Monday, the 19th of March.