Fully 5 hours before Celtic kicked off their final pre-season friendly against Boca Juniors at the cavernous Browns’ Stadium, some of the faithful were already making their way past the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and beginning to loiter near the ground. Of the 20,000 people who eventually turned up to see them win a terrible game against uninterested opponents, Martin O’Neill himself estimated that at least 17,000 of them were Celtic fans.
They had come from all over America and Canada. Groups of men and women who normally spend a few hours every weekend traipsing to some pub to watch matches on satellite went the extra thousand miles to see their heroes in the flesh. Best of all, their incredibly loyal fan base isn’t the result of slick marketing and overbearing hype like Manchester United’s current attempt to woo the United States. The majority of those in attendance were either emigrants from Ireland (among the county jerseys spotted were Cavan and Kilkenny) and Scotland, or their children. This is something handed down by parents to their kids, a little piece of home they cling to still.
In such an incongruous setting, it was a heartening sight to behold. Even if you are one of the Celtic skeptics like me. One of those people who turned off the club around about the time they were hijacked by the pan-nationalist movement as the sporting wing of the freedom fighters. And hijacked they most certainly were. That much became obvious one afternoon about 18 months ago when I was walking past the Sinn Fein hall at the foot of Barrack Street in Cork City. Years after first starting to get into arguments with peoplr claiming you had to support Celtic if you were a good Catholic/nationalist and that rooting for Rangers was basically a mortal sin/act of treason, we spotted a fleece sweater for sale in the Sinn Fein window with a Glasgow Celtic logo on it.
Never mind Fiona O’Malley TD correctly lashing this political party out of it last week for continuing to flog merchandise celebrating IRA violence on its website, this appeared to me to be confirmation that Celtic were regarded by many as the official club of Sinn Fein. It would have been interesting to see what the board in Glasgow, a group that have tried hard to eradicate sectarianism might have made of that particular item. No use trying to stamp out the singing of certain songs at football matches when, with your permission or not, memorabilia with your name on it is being flogged by Sinn Fein, the money destined to end up who knows where?
Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that the point when cheering for Celtic became something you were obliged to do rather than chose to do appeared to coincide with the decline in the fortunes of the Scottish Premier League. Perhaps the growing irrelevance of the competition the club play in made the hardcore fans anxious to find another, more important reason, to stay so passionate. How else do we explain that group of morons at Lansdowne Road who boo every obscure international player with any connection to Rangers? Whatever the merits of that theory, the utter ridiculousness of the SPL is no longer up for debate.
“Realistically, we won the league last season because Celtic and Rangers are in a league of their own and they compete for first and last place in that league,” said Hearts Canadian center-half Kevin McKenna about his side’s third -place finish. “Two months into every season you can already see it spreading out like that. I would like to see them go to the Premiership. If they did, I think one of them would be challenging Manchester United within five years because they would get players who won’t come to them now because of the league they are in.
“When you are playing Celtic or Rangers, you are expected to lose the game. You go out and say, ‘let’s give it a go,’ but if you lose five nothing, you know are not going to get your head torn off by anyone. You can talk about it ’til you are blue in the face. There’s just no situation like this in any other football or any other sport.”
The son of an emigrant couple from Paisley, McKenna grew up religiously watching Celtic matches with his brothers in a Calgary pub every weekend. The scales have dropped from his eyes since then. Even if he still drops names like Cadete and Di Canio with a certain reverence, the teenage fan quickly matured into a seasoned pro, his reasoned view of the Old Firm chastened by bitter experience. That something drastic needs to be done about the Scottish duopoly was hammered home yet again on this American tour. The whipping Celtic recently received from Manchester United in Seattle summed up the growing distance between them and Europe’s elite clubs.
Regardless of results and performances, however, Celtic’s participation in what the American organizers have grandiloquently titled the ChampionsWorld Series augurs well for their commercial and footballing futures. Just look at the rest of the lineup. Boca Juniors were recently crowned champions of South America, Club America are the biggest outfit in Mexico, and the status of Barcelona, Juventus, United and AC Milan hardly requires further elaboration. Heady company for the second best side in Scotland to be keeping, an unfortunate downside may be that this stateside foray could well have tired out some of O’Neill’s players ahead of next Wednesday’s Champions’ League qualifier against Kaunas of Lithuania.
Still, just by being here last week they were reminding people that long-term they want to be closely associated with the biggest clubs in the world, not the smaller political parties in Ireland.