Friday, 29 December 2017

The Holy War

The Holy War

Last Easter I took a trip to Poland and visited the beautiful and historic city of Krakow. It’s a relaxed, pretty place with fine buildings and friendly people. One part of town houses the Schindler factory made famous by Spielberg’s epic movie Schindler’s List.’ It’s an interesting place to visit and a reminder that amid the sunshine and laughter of modern Krakow the past is never far away.

I got chatting to a taxi driver who spoke excellent English and was a big football fan. He followed local side Cracovia and told me he knew all about the Polish players who played for Celtic over the years. I mentioned Celtic’s visit to Krakow to play Wisla in the 1970’s and he got quite animated. Wislaw Krakow are the main rivals of Cracovia and there is much bitterness in the city when they meet. He told me of the ‘Holy War’ between fans of the two clubs which over the years has seen many violent clashes and even a few fatalities. The hooligans of Poland apparently agreed not to use weapons but those in Krakow opted out. It was interesting hearing first hand of a rivalry which seemed to be every bit as fierce as any around Europe. As the driver dropped me at Wavel Castle he said, ‘One day I hope to see Celtic play Rangers.’

Later that day I visited the district of Kazimierz which was for 500 years the flourishing centre of Jewish life and culture in the city. Over 70,000 Jews lived there before the coming of the Germans in 1939. Today the district is full of cafes, galleries and many of the old buildings still retain their pre-war Yiddish signs. A few hundred Jewish folk have set up various businesses which offer a glimmer of what life must have been like here before the Holocaust devoured the Jews of Krakow. 30km from town is the engine of that destruction; Auschwitz.

Auschwitz concentration camp is one of those places which you feel compelled to visit even though you know the experience won’t be a pleasant one. The young Polish guide was excellent though at making the mixed group of people from a dozen countries see the gravity of the place. She told one young Italian taking a selfie by Krematorium 2 in no uncertain terms that it was not appropriate. ‘This is the largest mass grave in Europe,’ she said, ‘You will show respect, or you will leave.’ To use a Glasgow expression, ’his gas was put on a peep.’ Auschwitz is the low point of European history. It’s the end of the line when hatred is allowed to flourish, go unchallenged or is fostered for political ends.

I got thinking about that human capacity to divide themselves up by race, politics, colour, class, football allegiances or a host of other characteristics. Such tribalism might be a leftover from our hunter-gatherer past, but it does seem we humans are a clannish lot by nature. That ‘Holy War’ in Krakow between fans of Wislaw and Cracovia is fought out between Poles who have a city, a history, a culture and language in common yet still find a reason to fight each other.

This week marks 30 years since Rangers signed Mark Walters and we saw a mirror being held up to an ugly facet of Scottish society of the 1980s. Some Scots used to think they were immune to the racism so common on the football terraces of England in that era, but they had a rude awakening as Walters was subjected to sickening behaviour from a minority of Scottish football supporters. There can be no hiding from the painful truth that some Celtic supporters behaved despicably on his first visit to Celtic Park. No excuses about it being a different time will suffice. You can’t complain about the discrimination or anti-Catholic chants directed at Celtic supporters in those days and then racially abuse a player on the grounds of his colour. Such hypocrisy isn’t and never will be acceptable. It was and remains the low point in my years watching Celtic. Thankfully the majority called the morons out for what they were; ignorant fools who shamed themselves and the club they proport to support. The fact that the away fans polluted the air that day with their usual ‘FTP’ nonsense doesn’t excuse some of our own stooping to base racism. It was wrong then as it would be wrong now.

Like all countries, modern Scotland still has a minority who will abuse people on the basis of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender or whatever other facet takes their fancy, but it is a country which has moved on greatly since the 1980s. Laws have sought to challenge hate crimes and same sex marriage is now not only legal but widely accepted. There is a long way to go to get through to the serious haters who exist in the shadows of every society, but mainstream Scotland is a far more accepting place than it was in decades past. Don’t be fooled by the anonymous idiots online who post their bile. They are a dying breed and the echo chamber of social media can magnify their importance. I saw one recently post a hateful comment which had over 100 retweets. This for a stupid person with just 13 followers!

So tomorrow, if the snow doesn’t lead to a postponement, 60,000 will gather at Celtic Park to watch Celtic play a Derby match against the Rangers. It’s a fixture which brings the best out of some and the worst out of others. The atmosphere will no doubt be raucous and match anything around Europe. The fans will be as fully committed as the players and I can recall coming home from such games physically and emotionally drained. I want Celtic to win as all Hoops fans do, in fact I want the team to wipe the floor with the Ibrox club, but I hold no hatred for them or anyone else. It’s a sporting rivalry and it’s a game against a club and support which karma is currently paying a long overdue visit. All my life I, like many others, have endured their curiously warped triumphalism laced with the sort of ignorant bigotry from some which I despise. That being as it is, I approach such games with hope in my heart and not hatred.

A walk around the streets of Kazimierz or along the unloading ramp at Auschwitz soon teaches anyone where hatred leads. Enjoy the game tomorrow should the weather relent, and it goes ahead. Shout your head off, drive the team on to victory but remember it is just a game and not a holy war.

Have a wonderful 2018. I think it’ll be a Champion year for all who love the green.

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