On Saturday, for the first time since 2012, Rangers will play Celtic in the top flight of Scottish soccer. The Old Firm derby is one of Europe's oldest and most storied rivalries, and it usually decides the Scottish champion. And this edition of the derby will be more accessible to American audiences than ever before, with Fox Sports 1 showing the match.
If you don't care or have a cynical point of view about the Old Firm, that's understandable. Scottish soccer was in steep decline before Rangers was liquidated, reformed in the fourth division and continued to struggle since. The sectarianism can be off-putting. Waking up at 7 a.m. or earlier generally stinks. The second half will overlap with the Manchester Derby.
But despite all the negatives, this game is worth your time. Maybe that "time" is DVRing it, or just catching the first half before you flip to the bigger game, or illegally downloading the extended highlights, but it's worth doing one of those things.
Why haven't they played a league game in four years?
Here's the simple story: In 2010 Rangers got into a dispute with the government about tax owed. The team operated an employee benefit trust fund that they claimed was legal, but the government disagreed, claiming it was an illegal method of avoiding taxes. A court eventually found against Rangers, who were unable to pay their tax bill, and they were forced to liquidate in 2012. A new company bought the club's assets and re-founded them, but were denied re-entry into the Scottish Premier League. The club was accepted by the Scottish Football League and was placed in its Third Division, which is actually the fourth tier of Scottish soccer. The club won two straight promotions, but failed to get back into the top flight in their first season in the second division. Last year, they won that division, and they're back in what is now called the Scottish Professional Football League.
The long story is fascinating if you can stand a little bit of boring tax law intermingled between the enthralling parts. It includes financially irresponsible owners who got the club into terrible low cash flow and legal situations, then sold the club to an even more financially irresponsible owner who made the cash flow problem worse, just before the legal problem got worse. It'll take a while to read the whole thing, but the Rangers Tax Case blog has a solid chronological rundown.
The cynical perspective on the soccer side of the game
I feel obligated to be honest with you about what these teams are in pure soccer terms, so I'm going to do that.
First, this is just the first league Old Firm derby since Rangers' liquidation, not their first meeting. Celtic beat Rangers in the quarterfinals of the 2014-15 League Cup, and Rangers got some revenge last season, knocking Celtic out of the Scottish Cup semifinals on penalties. Still, the first league match since Rangers' ascent back to the top flight is a significant moment, even if the league isn't what it was when Rangers departed it.
The SPFL is currently the 25th-ranked league in UEFA's coefficient. Winning it does not guarantee a place in the UEFA Champions League. The last year that Celtic and Rangers were both internationally relevant was 2008, when Celtic made the Champions League Round of 16 and Rangers made the Europa League final after giving Barcelona, Lyon and Stuttgart a run for their money in the Champions League group stage.
But in the summer of 2009, Setanta Sports, who paid good money for the broadcast rights to the former SPL, declared bankruptcy. It's all been downhill from there for Scottish soccer. The Celtic and Rangers squads are now mostly filled with fairly promising young talent, Scottish soccer lifers and Premier League washouts. Since we're talking about 2009, I should let you know that Celtic employs Kolo Toure while Rangers features Joey Barton and Niko Kranjcar.
The year 2009 is also where both managers hail from. Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers and Rangers manager Mark Warburton were both forced out of their jobs in England after being unable to work in an environment where they did not have total control of transfers. Both had power taken away from them by people who had more experience in financial or statistical analysis. This is becoming the norm in the upper reaches of English soccer, so they headed north for jobs where they could be The Man.
The optimistic perspective on the soccer side of the game
What Rodgers and Warburton lack in ability to adapt to modern club operations, they make up for in ability to coach an entertaining style of soccer. This will not be a low-skill, kick-and-chase game like many Old Firm derbies were in the 1990s and 2000s. Both of these teams can play with the ball on the ground, or will at least attempt to.
It's undeniable that Celtic currently has the better squad. Scotland internationals Leigh Griffiths and James Forrest are off to a hot start. Scott Sinclair is experiencing a rebirth after escaping Aston Villa. Mousa Dembélé was pursued by Premier League teams this summer, but opted to move to Celtic for more playing time. And Manchester City loanee Patrick Roberts, probably the most exciting talent of them all, has a chance to get a shot in Pep Guardiola's squad next year if he builds on his impressive performances from last season.
But Rangers have plenty to like, too. Even though they're in their first year back in the top flight and haven't been able to build the squad of Warburton's dreams yet, they've still got some solid talent. Barton and Kranjcar, washed up as they may be, can still pass a ball. Barrie McKay is an exciting young attacking midfielder. James Tavernier is an entertaining rarity in the sport -- a goal-scoring fullback.
Okay, I want to read more about the current teams, where do I do that?
So I went to The Celtic Blog and ... what the heck is Sevco?
Here's the strangest wrinkle in this rivalry. The company that bought Rangers' assets after they were liquidated was initially called Sevco. They changed their name after they won the bid for Rangers and have absorbed all their history, as if it were one continuous club. Most people accept this. Many Celtic fans do not, claiming that Rangers FC ceased to exist in 2012, and the club that is currently called Rangers is actually a new club with no history, so they derisively refer to Rangers as Sevco.
You might ask: if this is what Celtic fans believe, why would they have so much hate for a club that has only existed for four years, has never played in the same division as them and has never won a major trophy? This is a good question! The answer is: sports fans.
There's a sectarian element to this derby, right?
Rangers have been historically supported by Protestants and Celtic by Catholics. Traditionally, supporters of each club took on other traits -- Rangers fans were native Scots who were loyal to Britain, while Celtic fans were Irish immigrants or had Irish ancestry, and were not loyal to Britain. Rangers have enjoyed significant support in Northern Irish Protestant communities, while Celtic has bigger support in the rest of Northern Ireland and Ireland, and both teams have signed lots of players from those respective communities.
It will not shock you to learn that these descriptors have become broad generalizations that are now overblown. All of these lines have blurred considerably over the last couple of decades, though each team has their set of supporters who still take the sectarian and political divides seriously. It's still common to see Union Jack and Northern Ireland flags in Rangers supporter sections, and Irish flags in Celtic supporter sections.
If you're interested in learning more about how the divide between the two fanbases has changed while still remaining heated, check out Inside the Divide: One City, Two Teams ... The Old Firm by Richard Wilson. Here's an interesting excerpt from Kevin McKenna's review of the book at The Guardian, on why the clubs remain so important to people in a society that no longer emphasizes sectarianism.
But all of this doesn't explain the medieval religious fervour in a post-church society. What does is that these two clubs give many poor people a sense of belonging and self-worth. Those whom the Labour party and the Conservatives and - now - the SNP have marginalised and held in contempt, feel better about themselves by belonging to either of these clubs. When all of the "back to work" schemes and urban regeneration projects have failed, Celtic and Rangers will remain constant. Their existence has given generations of Glasgow's dispossessed joy, pride and identity. And this is why the tiny intellectual Edinburgh elite who think they hold sway in Scotland hate the Old Firm so.
The rivalry isn't nearly as much about sectarianism as it once was, but fans aren't any less passionate about their clubs because of it.
Will players beat the crap out of each other?
Heck yeah. The Scott Brown vs. Joey Barton beef has been great stuff.
Brown is Celtic's captain and one of the nastiest, most physical players you'll ever watch. He lives for crunching tackles and is so About That Life that he loves it when people give it back to him. Barton once punched a teammate in the face repeatedly and put out a cigar on another teammate's eye. Barton's less of a violent criminal these days and more of a general non-criminal nuisance, but he'll be perfectly willing to get into a scrap with Brown and other Celtic players.
Will there be goals?
I'm inviting a commentator's curse here, but yes. There should be goals. Both of these teams try to play attacking soccer and have good attacking players, but average defensive players. They've scored 16 goals between them in seven games (Celtic have played one fewer than Rangers), while collectively conceding eight. It would be surprising if both teams didn't score. 3-2 is more likely than 1-0.
Despite all the bad things about the Old Firm, there are ultimately more good things. There will be an incredible atmosphere, players playing ridiculously hard and calamitous defending. Best of all, if you're in the United States, England or Canada, it's as accessible as international soccer games get. You're unlikely to regret committing part of your Saturday to the Old Firm derby.