It is more than a soccer match.

It always has been, and, no doubt, always will be.

It is disquieting when politics enters the sporting arena, but throw in religion as well or, to be more precise, the politics of the Reformation and the whole thing takes on a different dimension, and it’s not a good one.

Such is the case in the Scottish city of Glasgow. In that city, politics, religion and soccer have proved a potent and perilous mix for over a hundred years.

Glasgow’s two leading soccer teams, Celtic and Rangers — known together as the Old Firm — are manacled in a hate-filled relationship that is as competitive as it seems indissoluble. Each season, they meet on the field at least four times in the league, sometimes more often if the teams are drawn in cup competitions. But no matter how many times they confront each other, the animosity remains the same: still visceral, still vicious. 

One group of supporters is wholly Protestant, the other largely Catholic. They chant at each other decades-old sectarian slogans — Irish history, Reformation quarrels, the Arab-Israeli conflict: anything is fair game from which to draw material for an abusive chorus. The spectrum of insult in this bitter ‘sporting’ rivalry is broad, and coheres to a loathing that is seemingly integral to the occasion.

Before, during, and after games, on the pitch, on the terraces and on the streets, violence is commonplace. Tragically, deaths have occurred. For days before and for some time after any Old Firm fixture, an atmosphere of animus and fear permeates the city and its environs, so much so, no matter who wins on match day, everyone would appear to have lost.

In 1887, an Irish Religious, a Marist Brother, founded Celtic Football Club. It was meant to boost morale for the Catholic population of Glasgow, most of whom were recent immigrants from Ireland, some having arrived on account of the Great Famine. Importantly, it was also conceived as a way of providing funds for a soup kitchen to serve the local poor. The origin of Celtic is not unique. Hibernian, in Edinburgh, and Dundee Harp were also soccer clubs set up by Catholic immigrants to Scotland.

All of these cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee quickly saw a rival club founded, or adopted, by the local Protestant populations. None was as clearly defined, or as sharp, in its opposition to the rival Catholic club as the one that emerged in Glasgow. Rangers Football Club took on the mantle of that city’s Protestant football club. In so doing, the Club has managed to collect some strange fellow travellers, not least, ironically, from Ireland.

Comprehending the political and religious divides of Ulster in general, and of Belfast in particular, is essential to understanding what is happening on and off the pitch in Glasgow. The root of the polarisation in Northern Irish society is religious, between Catholic and Protestant, and permeates all aspects of life. Not surprisingly, the two most popular soccer teams there are Celtic and Rangers. The Irish wars of the past and the more recent Ulster violence, known as the Troubles, have always provided a sinister backdrop to the Old Firm games played across the North Channel.

Depressingly, the political point scoring of Ulster politics is often played out on the soccer terraces of Glasgow. That said the historical and cultural connections between the Old Frim and Ireland are obvious and there is, therefore, a semblance of logic to the enmities on display. Sometimes, however, the respective fans’ political positions are less fathomable. Perhaps nowhere is this more the case than when the Old Firm supporters have taken sides in the on-going conflict in the Middle East. What the internecine strife of the Holy Land has to do with Glasgow is lost on outsiders as Scottish soccer fans sport Israeli and Palestinian flags. It appears simply another way of fuelling the confrontation between fans already virulently antagonistic.

Soccer rivalry is not unique to Glasgow. Many British and European cities have such rivalries, some comparably toxic. The violent edge in Glasgow feels different though, and religion remains its basis. Soccer is a sport; the following of a team is supposed to be a pleasurable pastime. It should not become identified with a religion or defined in opposition to another faith. Sadly this is still the case in Glasgow, with cries of ancient wars and even older wrongs, and a general sense of hostility and grievance, contributing nothing to the building of a more harmonious society let alone the New Jerusalem. Inevitably, in such circumstances any victory on the field is immaterial. And, in terms of the perceived beneficial effects of sports to the wider society, it is fair to say that these have been lost long before any final whistle is blown.

Here the example of Pope St. John Paul II is pertinent. He grew up in a Polish town that often differentiated its sporting allegiance on religious grounds: Catholic and Jewish. Interestingly, it was for a Jewish soccer team that the late, great pontiff and saint chose to play, giving us all a timely reminder that there is something more innocent and, therefore, more profoundly human, about sporting activity than many of us would imagine. He left us with an example of the potential friendships gained through sports especially for young people; it is a vision far removed from anything bigoted or prejudiced, sectarian or partial, or, for that matter, political or religious.

As politics start to infiltrate American sports, from the dismal experience this side of the Atlantic, caution is urged. Sports should unite people; it should make people healthier both in mind and body; it should contribute to the common good; it should build the New Jerusalem. When other factors come into play then, for all concerned, the joy of sports soon departs. From what I have experienced in Glasgow and elsewhere, sports and politics don’t mix. When religion is added to that already noxious mix, it detracts even more until everyone loses.