Alabama-Auburn. Maple Leafs-Canadiens. Boca Juniors-River Plate. Carlton-Collingwood. Fenerbahçe-Galatasaray. Great rivalries are the catalysts of national sporting cultures. They are the high point of a season, fueling emotions as well as ticket sales and media hype. The most famous rivalries typically have bearing for league standings and championships. But many are also grounded in long-standing divisions between social classes or religious and ethnic communities.
The case can be made that the most intense rivalry in all of sports is between Glasgow’s two football clubs: Celtic and Rangers. Known collectively as the “Old Firm,” the two clubs have dominated Scottish football for more than a century. The last time a team other than Celtic or Rangers won the Scottish league was 1985. But the rivalry is built on more than the competition for titles and trophies. Rangers were long associated with Scottish Protestantism, and the club refused for decades to sign a Catholic player. Celtic, on the other hand, was historically the club of Irish Catholic immigrants, and still today fans wave Irish tricolor flags at matches.
As sportswriter Richard Wilson explains, the sectarian division that undergirds the Old Firm is waning, as secularization advances and intermarriage becomes more common. But the intensity surrounding the Old Firm derby has not lessened. In his book Inside the Divide: One City, Two Clubs, the Old Firm (Canongate, 2012), Richard presents the story of a single match in January 2010, as viewed from different participants: the players and managers, the police and the press, supporters of both clubs, and even the nurses who tend to the drunk and wounded after the game. The composite picture shows the anxiety and tension that precede the match, and then the energy and passion that erupt inside the grounds. Richard makes clear that the two hours or so at Ibrox or Celtic Park are exhilarating, exhausting, and breathlessly quick. The noise is overpowering, as supporters of both sides do battle in chants and song. On occasion, though, they will still slide into slurs against their opponents. Despite the policing and the anti-sectarian campaigns, the deep animosities still emerge, offering a reminder that in the Old Firm, as in all rivalries, fans are still tribal creatures.