Football’s overlying status is society is a common topic of discussion.

"Some people believe football is a matter of life and death," Bill Shankly, the celebrated former Liverpool manager, once said. "I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Shankly saw the gravity of football first hand. As a young man, he used to travel to Glasgow to watch Celtic take on Rangers. Derbies between Scotland's 'Old Firm' were marked by aggression, animosity and, on occasion, outright violence.

More than 80 years after Bill Shankly stood on the terraces, the Old Firm remains one of the world's fiercest football rivalry, a heady combination of identity, politics, religion and commerce.

Celtic v Rangers
Celtic and Rangers have played each other 399 times in competitive matches.
 
The clubs have won 99 Scottish titles between them


For the first time since they first met in 1890, the two clubs are not meeting as equals separated by a few points in the same division.


Celtic are Premiership leaders, while Rangers are second in the Championship (second tier).


The two biggest clubs in Scotland are re-engaging for the first time since Rangers were demoted to the bottom tier following their financial collapse in 2012.


Rangers were in the UEFA Cup final seven years ago but their demise was sealed with spiralling debts, a tax battle and a series of ownership tussles.
- Reuters

 

On the 1st of February, Celtic meet Rangers for the first time in almost three years, a Scottish League Cup semi-final in front of 60,000 raucous fans.

Contrasting fortunes

But the country’s two most successful sides have enjoyed contrasting fortunes in the recent years. Celtic are on course for a fourth league title in a row, while Rangers are making a stuttering recovering from bankruptcy.

The memories of their recent clashes are still fresh.

In 2011, a contest between the two sides descended into chaos after three players were sent off and the rival managers tussled on the touchline. A few weeks later, parcel bombs were sent to Celtic’s then-manager Neil Lennon, as well as two high-profile club fans. A pair of Rangers fans was later jailed for the crime.

The roots of the Old Firm rivalry run deep. The clover on Celtic's crest is not purely decorative. Established by a Catholic priest in the East End of Glasgow in 1887, the club has strong links with the hundreds of thousands of Irish that have come to Scotland over the last century and a half. The Irish tri-colour flies from Celtic Park on match days.

Rangers has long been seen as the establishment side. The club, on Glasgow's south side, once drew much of its support from Protestant workers in the nearby shipyards of the Cylde.

"The clubs were very much products of the specific social and political moments in which they were created," Raymond Boyle, professor of communications at University of Glasgow, said. "In the case of Celtic, Irish Catholic identity was integral, it was built into the club's DNA."

Many football clubs have their roots in immigrant communities or political struggles. But what makes the Old Firm different is that these distinctions have endured.

Some Celtic supporters still sing songs in praise of the Irish Republican Army, while their Rangers counterparts wave Orange flags, a reference to a once powerful Protestant fraternal organisation, the Orange Order.

As across the sea in Northern Ireland, religion is a big part of the Old Firm divide. Rangers only dropped a policy of not signing Catholics when Mo Johnston arrived at the club in 1989.

Off-field discrimination

Such sectarianism was once a prominent feature of life in the West of Scotland. Catholics were often discriminated against in employment. Protestants, on average, enjoyed higher incomes.

This has shifted quite dramatically in the last quarter of a century. But the Old Firm remains as an atavistic throwback to older tensions, says David Scott, campaign director at anti-sectarian charity Nil By Mouth.

"The football clubs are the last article of faith that Catholics and Protestants have in many respects. People don't go to church. Football has become the last bastion for these battles in Scotland."

The clubs were very much products of the specific social and political moments in which they were created

Raymond Boyle, Professor of communications at University of Glasgow

Often these battles have not been purely symbolic. Nil By Mouth was established after Mark Scott, a 16-year-old Celtic fan, was murdered on his way home from a game in 1995. His killer had links to a Protestant paramilitary group involved in the Northern Irish conflict.

Numerous Old Firm clashes have been marred by violence. Assaults and domestic abuse rise when Celtic and Rangers face-off. The Scottish government has introduced controversial legislation aimed at stamping out sectarian behaviour at football grounds.

A lot has changed, however, since the two teams last met.

In 2012, Rangers went into liquidation, leaving behind debts worth tens of millions of pounds. Rangers were demoted to the bottom rung. Having played in the UEFA Cup final as recently as 2008, the club was forced to compete against part-timers in small stadiums.

The club is slowly making its way back to the top flight but it has been dogged by off-field issues.

Former owner Craig Whyte is currently on bail after being charged with an allegedly fraudulent takeover of the club. The man who will sit in the Rangers dugout on Sunday, Kenny McDowall, recently resigned as caretaker manager but the cash-strapped board cannot afford to pay him off.

Simmering tension

At corporate level, the tensions between the clubs are not as ferocious as they once were. Recently, Celtic contributed £10,000 to a fund for Rangers' legend Fernando Ricksen, who suffering from Motor Neuron Disease.

But for many fans on both sides, out of sight is not out of mind. In the absence of on-field action, social media has keep Old Firm tensions simmering.
The rivalry between the fans is out there for everyone to see [Getty Images]

Last weekend, a group of Celtic fans took out a pull page advert in a Scottish Sunday newspaper saying that Rangers are a new club and that the Old Firm is effectively dead.

The Old Firm rivalry is big business. Celtic has suffered financially in the absence of their arch nemesis. Without regular clashes, gates receipts are down at both clubs. Television revenue has dropped.

There are strong commercial motives stoking the Old Firm fires, according to journalist and Celtic fan Angela Haggerty.

"As long as it makes money, it is in a lot of people's interest to keep it going,” Haggerty said. “There is a lot of talk about how we want to end sectarianism and the rivalry. But a lot of powerful interests don't want it to end."

The demise of Rangers is not the only change in Scottish society. The country almost voted for independence last year. Scottish nationalists are the pre-eminent political force. Slowly Scotland is becoming a more tolerant, plural place.

Some have wondered whether there is room for the Old Firm in this 'new Scotland'. But predictions of the demise of the most famous fixture in British football could be premature, said professor Raymond Boyle.

"The reality is that Celtic and Rangers have an ability to reflect and echo back supposedly old identities and, at the same time, metamorphosing to reflect changes. It is a bit like the Janus, looking forward and backward at the same time. The clubs always manage to reinvent themselves."

Source: Al Jazeera