Editor’s Note: This article forms part of a series of content being produced for Al Jazeera in association with the launch of its new football podcast, Game of Our Lives.
Peter Joyce has sat in the stands at Scotland’s biggest football fixture more than 100 times, but he has yet to enjoy the experience even once.
“Old Firm games [between Celtic and Rangers] are absolutely toxic; they have fantastic atmospheres but are fuelled entirely by hate,” Joyce, a Celtic fan, told Al Jazeera.
“They are not nice places to be. You don’t leave them feeling elated, you leave them feeling relieved.”
For adoring fans such as Joyce, football can become something akin to religion. But, for some football supporters, fervour for the world’s most popular sport blends with faith in an altogether more literal sense.
In Glasgow, home of the world-famous Old Firm derby, which is contested by the city’s two largest football clubs – Rangers and Celtic – that has frequently been the case.
A historic rivalry
The two clubs first competed against one another on May 28, 1888, just seven months after an Irish-immigrant Catholic Church group established Celtic Football Club, in a bid to raise money for fellow Catholics in Glasgow’s East End.
More than two decades after that initial meeting, however, the clubs’ rivalry was changed forever. In 1912, an influx of Protestant workers into Glasgow, as a result of the opening of a shipyard by a Belfast-based shipbuilding company, transformed Rangers, turning it into an overtly Protestant club.
Since then, the two clubs have increasingly had distinctly disparate fan bases, separated according to religious affiliation.
As such, the Old Firm has been influenced by tensions between the two groups in other parts of the UK, most notably across the North Channel in Northern Ireland.
A 1998 peace agreement ended Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” – which saw a predominantly Catholic Irish Republican Army pushing for a unified Ireland clash with those committed to the territory remaining part of the UK – but the legacy of the conflict continues to shape the political complexity of the Rangers-versus-Celtic divide today.
“Celtic is always going to be a club that flies the Irish flag above Celtic Park and Rangers is always going to have the history that they didn’t sign a Catholic player [for decades],” Joyce, a season ticket holder at Celtic for the past 18 seasons, said.
“The history is always going to be there, it’s never going to change.”
Like many of the world’s most famous footballing rivalries, Celtic and Rangers create distinct tribes of fans, with affiliation to one of the teams often flowing through entire families for generation after generation.
But it’s the Old Firm’s sectarian element, in particular, that has inspired some of the game’s greatest grudge matches and, on occasions, caused serious consequences off the pitch, too.
In the century-plus since the pair’s first meeting, sectarian chanting and violent clashes between opposing fans have been regular fixtures of Old Firm derbies.
The pinnacle of Scottish football
The Old Firm derby and its febrile atmosphere, however, mark the pinnacle of Scottish club football.
Fixtures between Celtic and Rangers typically draw in more than 50,000 supporters, dwarfing the average attendance figure of 15,883 across match days at all 12 clubs in the top tier of Scottish league football this season.
According to analysts from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, fixtures between the pair are now worth nearly $170m to the Scottish economy each year, and sustain more than 3,000 jobs.
The value is driven, in part, by both clubs’ history of repeated success.
Scottish football is in thrall to Rangers and Celtic.
Celtic and Rangers are, by some distance, Scotland’s most decorated football teams, having won 102 national championships between them.
During the past three decades, they have ruled league football without exception. The last non-Old Firm club to win the title was Aberdeen in 1985.
But, according to David Scott, director of anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, a by-product of the clubs’ success has been Scottish football’s unwillingness to tackle the more troubling elements of the pair’s rivalry.
“The problem is that Scottish football is in thrall to Rangers and Celtic,” Scott told Al Jazeera.
“I cannot think of any organisations that have done less to tackle sectarianism than the Scottish Premier Football League (SPFL) and the Scottish Football Association (SFA); they have done nothing.
“We need to get to the point where people see it [the Old Firm] in terms of one of the great football rivalries, one which doesn’t spill over into violence and is remembered for what happens on the pitch rather than off it, for the passion of the fans rather than the poison.”
While refusing to answer a number of specific questions related to sectarian behaviour at football matches, the SPFL, for its part, told Al Jazeera it condemns “any incident of unacceptable conduct”.
A spokesperson for the organisation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the SPFL has taken measures to address the issue, including supporting clubs’ efforts to develop programmes aimed at eliminating offensive behaviour at football matches.
The SFA, the governing body for football in Scotland, is yet to respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Repeal of the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football Act’
The Scottish government has attempted to address the issue of sectarianism in football, most notably with the passing of the “Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act” in December, 2011.
The legislation, which ostensibly targeted those “inciting public disorder” and “expressing hatred” at all football matches, was widely interpreted as a move to crack down on the enduring sectarian elements of the Old Firm clubs.
Legislation has an important role to play in tackling all societal problems, including offensive behaviour at football.
Earlier this month, however, the Scottish parliament voted to repeal the bill, by a margin of two votes.
The overturning of the act followed widespread criticism from fans, human rights groups and politicians, who claimed it had unjustly singled out football supporters and was an unnecessary extension of police powers.
Jeanette Findlay, a campaigner for the Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC) group, which pushed for the act’s repeal, told Al Jazeera the legislation had been “an utter distraction and complete waste of resources.
“We have never accepted that, whatever this problem is, that it was particularly a problem for football fans,” Findlay said.
“It’s a typical politicians’ thing; they kick a group they think won’t be able to organise … and then they can say they’re doing something because something has to be done.
“[But] essentially what that did was apply different standards in the context of a football match than there were anywhere else.”
On the day of the March 15 repeal vote, James Kelly, a Labour Party Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP) who led the drive to overturn the act, described it as “the worst legislation in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
“The failure of the government’s approach lies in the fact that it adopted a simplistic approach: it thought that introducing legislation would deal with the problem of sectarianism. Sectarianism is a complex problem that has, unfortunately, been with us for a long time,” Kelly said in parliament.
‘Religiously aggravated’ offending
There were 673 “religiously aggravated” offences reported in Scotland between 2016-17, according to the Scottish government’s latest report on religious hate crime.
We have never accepted that, whatever this problem is, that it was particularly a problem for football fans.
Of these crimes – 80 percent of which were aimed at Catholics or Protestants – the majority were carried out in residential settings, on public roads or at police stations, figures show.
A separate 46 “religiously aggravated” charges were made under the Football Act during the same period, the report noted.
Annabelle Ewing, the ruling Scottish National Party’s (SNP) community safety minister, said repealing the legislation “would solve nothing” and constrain efforts to tackle offensive behaviour – such as sectarian chanting and violence – among football fans.
“We recognise that legislation on its own will never resolve any social issues, and the 2012 act has always been just one element of our work to tackle the problems,” Ewing said on March 15, adding the government had invested $18m in tackling sectarianism since 2012.
“[But] legislation sets the standard for what is and is not acceptable in modern society. Therefore, legislation has an important role to play in tackling all societal problems, including offensive behaviour at football.”
In the wake of the repeal, the government should put even greater pressure on Scottish football authorities and clubs to eradicate sectarianism behaviour in the game, James Dornan, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, told Al Jazeera.
“If strict liability [rules] came in, this could include imposing fines, shutting parts of stadiums and, ultimately, points deductions, depending on the behaviour and record of the clubs,” Dornan said.
“[Otherwise] football clubs become a place where some people think it’s acceptable to behave in a way they wouldn’t anywhere else.”
Sectarianism in Scotland
Fewer than two percent of the 673 “religiously aggravated” offences reported between 2016-17 were committed at football stadiums, the government’s report shows.
“Religiously aggravated” offending per se represents a minor part of all crime committed in Scotland, with the number of these offences fluctuating between 600-900 every year for nearly a decade.
Based on these figures, religious hate crime accounted for less than 0.1 percent of the 238,651 criminal offences documented in Scotland last year.
A “perception gap” lingers, however, about the extent of sectarianism in Scotland, and how it interplays with football, Scott told Al Jazeera.
“In the last 15 years, on average, 700 people have been arrested annually for sectarian offences, so in terms of the overall statistics it’s a very, very small part of all crime committed in Scotland,” Scott said.
“[But] it’s an issue people have very strong views on … [and] according to government research 88 percent of Scottish people think that football drives sectarianism,” Scott said.
“Part of the reason for that is the obsession people have with it [the Old Firm fixture].”
‘A chaotic marriage’
In reality, the Old Firm rivalry, like Scotland itself, has changed over the years.
Nearly 60 percent of Scots now describe themselves as belonging to no religion, up from 40 percent at the millennium.
Moreover, fewer than 30 percent of Scotland’s some five million people now declare themselves either Protestant or Catholic compared with 49 percent in 1999.
The apparent shift has had implications for Scotland’s most renowned sporting contest, too, pushing sectarianism to the boundaries of the Old Firm rivalry in recent years.
“You still have Celtic and Rangers fans who hate each other, [but] perhaps more now just for being Celtic or Rangers fans, than necessarily Catholic or Protestant,” Joyce told Al Jazeera.
“As religion [in Scotland] has changed, so have the football teams.”
Undoubtedly, few fixtures in world football match the complexity of the Old Firm rivalry.
But, for all their differences, few clubs have come to rely on their rivals to the same extent Celtic and Rangers do, Scott told Al Jazeera.
“It’s a kind of chaotic marriage, [but] they realise they’re financially and emotionally reliant on one another,” Scott said.
“They’re locked in an eternal relationship.”