Easter Sunday: a moment for reverence and piety for Christians the world over. Unless you happen to be in Glasgow that afternoon, which will be home to a passion play of an altogether different, less edifying kind -- one characterized by sectarianism, heavy drinking, hatred, and spittle-flecked bigotry. Yes, it's time again for Celtic and Rangers, Scotland's two biggest soccer clubs, to do battle. And this weekend's fixture is a potentially championship-deciding game that has their city -- and Scotland writ large -- braced for trouble.
Few sporting rivalries are as visceral as that between Glasgow's great clubs. Between them, Celtic and Rangers have won more than 80 percent of Scottish championships; not since 1985 has another club won the title. The uncompetitive nature of the Scottish league -- akin to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox competing against eight other minor-league clubs -- intensifies the pressures. The four league meetings each season essentially decide the championship's destination. Even so, the revelation this week that letter bombs had been sent to senior figures associated with Celtic Football Club was a depressing commentary on soccer's most depressing rivalry. If most Scots were shocked by this latest outbreak of senseless hatred, few were truly surprised.
At first, police thought the parcel bomb sent to Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic, was a hoax. Further examination revealed that the liquid-based device was "viable" and capable, if exploded, of causing serious harm. Lennon was not the only target. Similar letter bombs were sent to Paul McBride, Lennon's lawyer and one of the most high-profile advocates in Scotland, and Trish Godman, a Labour member of the Scottish Parliament well-known for supporting Celtic.
The assassination attempts -- and let us not be coy about labeling them such -- represent a new low in the long, poisonous rivalry between Scotland's two most popular, most successful clubs. It's a rivalry fueled by history, religion, politics, and identity, a potent brew that ensures that Celtic vs. Rangers always makes any list of great sporting events that must be seen to be believed. The hatred, bigotry, and sectarianism are part of the appeal and much of the problem.
Even Scots schooled outside Glasgow's divided city shake their heads and wonder, "What's wrong with these people?" Other cities, including Manchester, Liverpool, and Edinburgh, were also once divided along religious and footballing lines. The religious aspect of soccer rivalries faded long ago in England and is now much less significant in Edinburgh than in Glasgow. This spring, Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, hosted an emergency summit of the clubs, government, and police to focus attention on the problems caused by fixtures between the two Glaswegian behemoths.
An Old Firm derby (as the match has been known for more than a century) in February was accompanied by 229 arrests. Police figures show that, compared with "ordinary" weekends, violent crime in the west of Scotland, the country's most populous region, leaps by 172 percent and domestic violence by 140 percent when Celtic play Rangers. Soccer-related murders are not unknown either.
The chief constable of Strathclyde Police, Stephen House, warned that the Easter Sunday match may bring even more than the usual trouble-filled festival of hatred. "It's a bank holiday; it is the last meeting of the season -- which is crucial for a result -- and the weather forecast is hot. That means people will be drunk and they will get injured or raped; assaults go up and so does domestic violence," he told the Scottish Sun. His force is deploying an extra 1,000 officers to police the Glasgow metropolitan area on the day of the game.
And such precautions aren't just show; the fixture has had a long and inglorious history. A 1909 Old Firm fixture is often cited as the occasion for the first large-scale soccer riot anywhere in the world: a stand was set alight and to cap it off fans proceeded to pelt firefighters with rocks. The 1980 Scottish Cup final between the two teams was marked by another riot, likened by a television announcer at the time to a scene out of Apocalypse Now. "At the end of the day," he added, "let's not kid ourselves. These supporters hate each other." Every time Celtic and Rangers meet, Glasgow's hospitals are filled with the casualties of soccer-related violence.
Celtic were founded in 1887 by a member of the Marist international religious order as a sporting vehicle to support charitable work among the Irish immigrants packed into Glasgow's East End. Rangers, founded in 1872 by rowers seeking a sport to play in winter, at that stage had no such sectarian identity. As Irish immigration to Scotland continued, though, Protestant Scots increasingly bucked the new arrivals. (In the 1920s, for instance, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland commissioned a report titled "The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality.") The Rangers club came to be seen as a cultural and political badge of identity sported by working-class, "indigenous" Scots defining themselves against the Irish invaders. Celtic, by contrast, still see themselves as outsiders and underdogs struggling against an establishment prejudiced against them. This season has been marked by a long-running saga over refereeing standards with Celtic complaining that officials are biased, consciously or not, against the club.