Rivals not enemies
Lutz Long watched his main competitor for the long jump gold medal foul for the second time. The judge raised his red flag to declare it a no jump. The handsome young German wandered over to the talented American and gave him some advice in front of 110,000 watching fans. ‘You’re jumping too late, try jumping from a few inches further back. You’ll make the qualifying distance no problem so why risk another foul and disqualification?’ It was a very sporting act from Long and he watched the young American take his advice and leap into the final. That young American eventually beat Long to the Gold medal. His name was Jesse Owens and this happened at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of Adolf Hitler. Owens, an African American, was aware of the Nazi’s crackpot racial theories and said afterwards that “It took a lot of courage for Lutz to befriend me in front of Hitler, you can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment.’’ Lutz Long was first to reach Owens when he smashed the World record and won his gold medal. He held Owens arm aloft, recognizing his sporting greatness as the crowd cheered. The two became good friends during those 1936 games and wrote to each other in the next few years. Of course the war came and Lutz Long lost his life fighting for the Wehrmacht in Italy.
You may wonder what tangent my mind has wandered off on tonight and I can’t blame you. I often seem to be on auto pilot as my fingers type out my stories. I think the story of Lutz Long and Jesse Owens came to mind as I saw another fine example of sportsmanship last night. When the excellent Andres Iniesta was leaving the field during the Celtic v Barcelona match a very rare thing occurred. A majority of the home fans applauded this excellent little footballer who has perhaps been among the top 5 players on earth for five or six years now. Despite Celtic being behind and the game looking lost those fans still had the intelligence to see that a cracking little player was leaving the field. That’s sportsmanship. That’s the Celtic way. Neymar may be the coming man of Spanish football and be blessed with wonderful footballing gifts but few of us have much respect for a young man given to overreacting to have opponents sent off. True greatness in sport is more than skill and pace, it is sportsmanship too and the Brazilian for all his talents is sadly lacking in this area. One Spanish Newspaper noted the sporting applause of Iniesta and stated…
‘The Celtic fans are the most encouraging fans for their own players, but also the most friendly and respectful of their opponents. Therefore their followers were quick to say farewell Andres Iniesta with a standing ovation when he was substituted in 88 minutes. Celtic Park thundered though the Scottish team was losing. In fact, thousands of fans stood up to applaud Iniesta.’
Of course we want our stadium to be a cauldron which helps push the team on and awe opponents but we know a player when we see one too and we know how to show respect to the many greats who have graced our stadium. I recall a Celtic v Ajax European Cup tie many years ago when a veteran Johan Cruyff appeared for the last time at Celtic Park. The game was a fantastic advert for attacking football and ended 2-2. The Jungle roared on the Hoops against a team with could boast class players such as Molby, Cruyff, Lerby, Olsen and a very young Marco Van Basten. Both teams were cheered from the field and Cruyff was given a special ovation in respect of his achievements in the game. He said afterwards, ‘The Celtic crowd understand the game, they respect good players and that is why we respect them.’ Celtic won 2-1 in Amsterdam a fortnight later to knock Ajax out of the European Cup.
A few detractors were unhappy with the ovation Iniesta received but the vast majority feel it’s right to allow each individual fan to choose whether to applaud a player or not. I think it’s important to realise that teams can be rivals without being enemies. Celtic has unique founding principles and our support have been wonderful maintaining them over the past 125 years. Sure we don’t like the divers and play actors but when we see a player who oozes class and plays the game the right way we aren’t afraid to show our appreciation, just as 100,000 Real Madrid fans cheered Jimmy Johnstone back in 1967 when he ripped their defence apart in the Bernabeu. Just like the Celtic supporters last night, the Madrid fans knew a player when they saw one.