August 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

First published on ESPN, 27 March 2012

So in the end, the possibility that had been keeping Strathclyde Police awake at night did not come to pass. Celtic did not seal the Scottish Premier League title in the Ibrox sunshine; rather, the league leader and champions-elect Sunday afternoon were on the wrong end of a bonkers and breathless 3-2 derby that left Rangers fans ecstatic. Rangers, feeding on a bouncing, belligerent atmosphere, took the initiative from kickoff, and by the time Celtic’s Cha Du-Ri received a red for hauling down Steven Whittaker, his team was already trailing to a wonderful solo goal from Sone Aluko, who had nutmegged one man, cut inside another and clipped a cute finish past Fraser Forster.

Celtic was kept on the back foot throughout by Aluko’s slippery skill, Whittaker’s industrious dominance, the aerial prowess of Lee McCulloch and its own occasional brain fades; where Cha’s red for tugging at Lee Wallace’s shoulder was due to a lack of positioning, Victor Wanyama’s second-half red, for a two-footed lunge on Whittaker, was simple idiocy. The referee was probably right on both calls, not that Neil Lennon agreed; Celtic’s manager was himself dismissed at halftime, and watched the rest of the game from the media room. The disturbances to satellite TV transmissions that followed in the second half were, we’ll presume, simple coincidence. In truth, Celtic seemed either tired or cowed, at least until a final rally saw the side pull two back in the last five minutes, briefly raising the faint prospect of the most undeserved of points.

This, though, was simply a trophy delayed, and even the most jubilant of ‘Gers fans could admit that it would take a meltdown of astonishing, earth-shattering proportions to ruin Celtic’s parade.

Furthermore, it would be lazy to ascribe that title entirely to Rangers’ tax woes, as Lennon’s side has corrected an early-season wobble in remarkable style. Having lost three of their first nine, the Bhoys were 3-0 down at halftime against Kilmarnock in their 10th game. Three unanswered goals in the second half rescued a point, and triggered a run of games in which they dropped a mere four points from a possible 60, including a barely credible 17 straight victories. At one point this season, Rangers was 15 points ahead; at full-time on Sunday, Rangers was 18 points behind (only 10 of which were pinched by the administrators) even with the joy and the points of an Old Firm victory.

In the grand scheme of things, Sunday’s win had the air of a defiant gesture on Rangers’ part: the league may be yours, but not here. After all, not only is Celtic this season’s better team, but the unfolding financial crisis at Rangers means that this is a rivalry in which the balance of power has shifted massively toward the hooped half of the city. Rangers, after agreeing to make substantial cuts to its players’ wages, will fulfill its remaining fixtures, but much depends on the decision of a tribunal as to the size of the debt owed to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That, naturally, will then impact any attempts to find a new owner.

As has been noted by the Guardian’s David Conn (among others), the case being brought by HMRC against Rangers is emblematic of a government agency that has, over the past couple of years, abandoned a soft approach to football clubs’ frequently vexed tax arrangements. Already owing 20 million pounds, which may rise as high as 60 million pounds, Rangers is perhaps the biggest club to receive troubling red-inked letters, but it is by no means alone. Portsmouth, of course, is back in administration after failing to pay up to2 million pounds in dues, while a number of Premier League teams,including Chelsea and Newcastle United, have made settlements relating to the controversial issue of players receiving money as image rights, paid into offshore bank accounts and subject to a lower rate of tax.

The Old Firm, though, is something of a special case from any perspective. A sporting duopoly relies on symbiosis: the success of one team is validated by the existence of the other. In some ways, this is slightly unfair, but it’s a fact of competition that victory is always contextualized by opposition. Being good is a lonely business; being the best needs company. A severely weakened Rangers side will have an impact beyond the financial and well beyond the cultural. It seems likely, something seismic aside, that the outcome will be a few seasons of relatively untroubled Celtic dominance, which is a worrying prospect from any perspective bar the most partisan.

The alternative is that Scottish football takes advantage of the weakness of one of its two titans to force some kind of rebalancing. As Franklin Foer notes in “How Soccer Explains The World,” “from the start of their rivalry, Celtic and Rangers have been nicknamed the ‘Old Firm’ because they’re seen as colluding to profit from their mutual hatreds.” Recently the BBC reported that the 10 non-Old Firm SPL clubs had, much to Celtic’s chagrin, been meeting to discuss potential changes in the league’s voting system; currently, major changes to the league require an 11-1 vote of the member clubs, meaning that the Old Firm can, by voting together, wield an effective veto. The other clubs are seeking to alter this to 9-3, with one chairman telling BBC Scotland, possibly while brandishing some kind of improvised weapon, “It’s not potential civil war. It’s on.”

It is entirely understandable that Scotland’s other teams — and the fact you can refer to them as such is A) insulting, for which apologies, and B) entirely fair in the context, which is indicative of the problem — might view this as an opportunity to move toward a more equitable league. And it is similarly understandable that some of their fans might find solace in the acronym FTOF, which ESPN, as a family website, must leave mysterious. Similarly, a certain amount of schadenfreude from Celtic fans is both inevitable and appropriate, particularly since fans with longish memories may remember Rangers fans singing “You haven’t got any money.” Fundamentally, it appears that what recent dominance Rangers has held over the rest of Scottish football has been bought and paid for with unethical and potentially illegal money, and such shenanigans tend to raise hackles.

There has been a lot of lazy presumption that Rangers is, for one reason or another, too big to fail. That it has too many friends in high places, as well as tacit allies across town, to be permitted to collapse in a flurry of IOUs. And certainly, the financial crises of English teams have shown that football clubs are easily crippled but hard to kill. There will probably be a Rangers FC somewhere in the Scottish pyramid for as long as there are fans to wish it so — if people want to spend money on something, somebody will ensure they have the opportunity — but whether that’s in the Scottish Premier League is another question. There are plenty of teams with debts, albeit not on the same scale, and it could set a troubling precedent if Rangers is seen to be able to fold, then reform, apparently without sporting penalty.

But ultimately, at least from this neutral’s non-Scottish perspective, Sunday’s game was a perfect advert for all the good things about the Old Firm, the things that feel cliché through overstatement, particularly when invoked as a counter to the dark stuff, but nevertheless hold true just the same. An atmosphere that threatened to burst into hot flame. Football that was by turns brilliant, hilarious and farcical, but always fascinating. A flailing narrative that began with assumptions of Celtic superiority, reversed itself comprehensively, and then nearly re-flipped right at the last. Whatever the effect of the Old Firm clubs on each other, and on the country’s sport, they know how to put on a show.

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