Old Firm, New Bonds: The Politics Tying Big European Clubs to Celtic and Rangers
More so than any other football teams, the Scottish sides have found strong support in the fans of clubs from Germany, England and Spain.
Celtic fans. Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo
While the Old Firm is by far the biggest fixture in Scottish football, it's not only big in Scotland. Celtic and Rangers have devoted followings at clubs overseas, with many fans drawn to the political divide between the two; and much like any other aspect of their rivalry, the affinities between their fanbases and clubs outside of Scotland are contentious.
Each of these informal alliances has its own origin story, or rather several origin stories made up of conflicting and sometimes contradictory accounts. For instance, Celtic’s longstanding friendship with FC St Pauli has been put down to, alternatively, contact between fanzines, chance meetings between supporters, camaraderie between fan clubs and European nights in the 1980s and 90s, not least Celtic's 1992 trips to Cologne and Borussia Dortmund, at which, anecdotally, many curious St Pauli fans were in attendance.
Then there's Rangers' close relationship with HSV, the other Hamburg club. This is pinned on Glaswegians heading to West Germany as gastarbeiter ("guest workers") in the 1970s and setting up a Rangers Supporters' Club there, or a friendly between the two clubs played around the same time, or to their shared love of German midfielder Jörg Albertz, transferred from HSV to Rangers in 1996 and back again five years later. It all just depends on who you ask.
This is all part of the long and intricate oral history of the Old Firm, though even that term is contentious these days, with many Celtic fans maintaining that it's become obsolete since Rangers’ liquidation in 2012. In practice, though, their rivalry is as deep-rooted as ever, often manifesting itself in their friendships with other clubs. Speak to Celtic and Rangers fans about their links to St Pauli and Hamburg, say, and they are keen to state that not only does their own respective mutual affinity go back further, but that it's also more intense and genuine. "In many ways, I think for Rangers fans [the affinity with HSV] is a reaction [to Celtic's affinity with St Pauli," one Celtic fan tells me. "Their friendships seem to spring up as the opposite to our ones, and I don’t think they have the same connection."
Conversely, Rangers fans tell me the exact same thing.
For many Celtic and Rangers supporters, bonds with other clubs are about precisely that: making a connection, swapping tall tales, reliving famous fixtures and getting shitfaced with likeminded folk. For some, there is also a political angle to the relationships they make with fanbases beyond Scotland’s borders. In St Pauli, Celtic fans of a left-wing disposition – of which there are a fair number – have found a natural sister club, one which champions humanitarian, socialist and anti-fascist causes, and whose terraces are steeped in political history. St Pauli's reputation as a punk club was born out of Hamburg's 80s squatter movement, and there are Celtic fans who see the 2. Bundesliga side's anti-establishment image reflected in their own.
Speaking to Paul John Dykes, author of several books on Celtic and co-host of the podcast A Celtic State of Mind, a strong sense of this shared identity with St Pauli comes across. "If you asked me what attracts Celtic fans particularly to a club like theirs, it really is that shared political viewpoint with regards to left-wing and anti-fascist politics, I would suggest," he says. "There’s also a shared interest in groups who have been oppressed by authoritarian figures, which is something the Celtic fanbase is always going to latch onto." This inevitably comes back to Irish politics and Celtic's roots in Glasgow's Irish Catholic diaspora, which has not only been traditionally left-wing at the ballot box, but also historically at odds with the establishment. "[The two clubs share] that anti-authority viewpoint… it’s a real rebel attitude, you know," Paul says.
Especially among Celtic's heavily politicised ultras group, the Green Brigade, the skull-and-crossbones iconography of St Pauli is ever-present at Celtic Park. Paul tells me that the Green Brigade owe a lot to their counterparts in Hamburg, drawing on their influence in terms of chants, tifos and even their own skeletal logo. Vice versa, there are many at St Pauli’s Millerntor Stadion who have fallen in love with Celtic both for their football and their politics, with several Celtic supporters telling me they have hosted travelling St Pauli fans in Glasgow for 20 years or more. With the beers flowing, these meetings are no doubt an education in everything from squatters' rights on Hamburg’s Hafenstraße to the tangled web of Irish nationalism.
"Barcelona are associated with the political status quo in Catalonia, the desire for independence, whereas Espanyol are directly linked to loyalism in Spain, the preserve of the country's union… we feel Espanyol are mirrored with Rangers."
Not everyone in Hamburg likes Celtic, of course. While Rangers' friendship with HSV seems far less political in its origins – speaking to fans of both clubs through the "Rangers Hamburg Linfield Blues Brothers" Facebook group, Jörg Albertz is a much more prominent theme than the social and religious divide in Glasgow – this does not mean that the politics of the Old Firm are lost on supporters at the Volksparkstadion. Ahead of a Europa League clash between Celtic and HSV back in 2009, Hamburg fans held up an enormous card display of a blue-and-black Union Jack, bearing the words "No Surrender". It would require extreme naivety to see that as a non-political statement in the circumstances, with those involved clearly well acquainted with the volatile fault lines of Scottish football.
There is a much clearer ideological link between Rangers and Belfast side Linfield, who are associated with the Protestant, unionist community in Northern Ireland. Asked whether there’s a political element to the clubs' friendship, a Linfield fan involved in the Blues Brothers Facebook page tells me: "I think there is… and I don't think it's anything to be ashamed of. Linfield supporters are proud of their club's working-class, Protestant roots [as are Rangers fans]." There was certainly some mutual antagonism when Celtic met Linfield in a Champions League qualifier this summer, with headlines made when Hoops striker Leigh Griffiths was pelted with a bottle of Buckfast, surely the most surreal public order offence in recent memory. There were also allegations of sectarian chanting on both sides, while controversial banners displayed by the Green Brigade led to arrests and a hefty fine for Celtic (not for the first time).
There have been attempts to link Celtic to various other left-leaning fan groups in Europe, not least those at Livorno, Marseille, AEK Athens and FC Barcelona. These seem like much smaller endeavours, however, and mainly exist on fan forums and between ultras online. AEK have links to St Pauli through the German club's Athenian supporters' groups, so there is perhaps an element of friendships cross-pollinating each other, with AEK fans even hoisting a crude anti-Rangers banner of their own a few years back. The link to Barca – another club seen as anti-fascist, in its historical opposition to Francisco Franco – is especially interesting in light of the recent Catalan independence referendum, with the violent reaction of the Spanish state evoking messages of solidarity from many Celtic fans on social media and beyond.
If those fans found themselves identifying with what they saw as another group of people being oppressed by authoritarian tactics – as well as with the politics of secession, relevant to both Irish nationalism and, more recently, the debate over Scottish independence – then the links between Celtic and Barca may well strengthen in the future. There have already been signs of this political alliance becoming more concrete; when Celtic travelled to the Nou Camp for a Champions League match in September of 2016, they were greeted with a banner bearing the words "Welcome to Catalonia", flanked by Irish and Scottish flags, seemingly a reference to secession for all.
Conversely, this seems to have fostered a link between Rangers and Espanyol, the other team in Barcelona. In December of 2016, The Daily Record reported that a small group of Espanyol fans had formed a Rangers Supporters; Club and travelled to Ibrox to support the Gers. Their founder explained: "Barcelona are associated with the political status quo in Catalonia, the desire for independence, whereas Espanyol are directly linked to loyalism in Spain, the preserve of the country's union… we feel Espanyol are mirrored with Rangers."
Clearly, it is not necessarily Celtic and Rangers fans seeking out these links, but other fan groups projecting their own political views onto the Old Firm.
Then there are the bonds with English clubs, which generally play out as might be expected. Celtic have a strong relationship with Liverpool, tied up in the Irish diaspora on Merseyside, the kinship between legendary managers Jock Stein and Bill Shankly, and the traditionally socialist politics of two post-industrial port towns. Soon after the Hillsborough disaster, Celtic and Liverpool played a memorial friendly which did much for their sense of camaraderie, while "You’ll Never Walk Alone" is a shared anthem (there is a debate as to who sang it first, which Liverpool fans usually win). Meanwhile, Rangers are most often associated with Chelsea – or at least a subsection of Chelsea fans sympathetic to overt displays of British patriotism – though there are numerous other clubs in England with whom they generally get on well.
Unionist, secessionist; socialist, nationalist, patriot; it would be easy to forget that the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers is about football as well as political symbolism. While there are certainly many fans for whom games between the two are as much an act of partisanship as they are a form of entertainment, there are also supporters on both sides who would rather leave their political allegiances at the gate, or who disagree with those who shout loudest at either Ibrox or Celtic Park. Some of these fans have little time for alliances between clubs, or at least see them as overstated in many cases. Take Stewart Franklin, administrator of the independent Gersnet fan forum, for instance.
"I suspect politics – and, more accurately, tribalism – are a big part of [the relationships with overseas clubs]," he tells me. "Unionism, republicanism, monarchism, loyalism, socialism and, of course, religion can all be found throughout most football countries, with various teams considered rivals when opposed along these lines. Are such aspects exaggerated with the Old Firm? Maybe, and recent political issues such as Scottish independence and Brexit may have inflamed matters to a degree. I'd suggest for the silent majority these will play second fiddle to a straight love of their club and the sport itself."
Then there are the words of one Celtic supporter who contacts me through the Kerrydale Street forum, which act as a succinct reminder that blending politics and football isn’t for everyone. "I've been to Hamburg but patched the St Pauli game to sit and drink mojitos on the Reeperbahn," he tells me. Some people have higher priorities, see. "I was satisfied with my decision," he adds.
More on VICE: