Saturday, 9 November 2019

A labour of love

A labour of love

Celtic’s victory of SS Lazio in the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday night was one of those occasions which will live long in the memory. Not since the epic events of seven years earlier to the day when a truly brilliant Barcelona side was beaten at Celtic Park has a victory been celebrated so enthusiastically. Of course Lazio are no Barcelona and some of their defending will show you why but that being said, for an SPFL side to beat the fourth placed side in Serie A home and away is no mean feat. Of the 26,155 at the match a good 10,000 were Celtic supporters and they had a ball despite isolated incidents when local cowards used knives to injure three innocent people.

Some have played down Celtic’s achievement but consider Lazio’s performances since losing to Chris Jullien’s towering header at Celtic Park; Lazio have defeated Fiorentina (a) 2-1 Torino (h) 4-0 and most impressively AC Milan (a) 2-1 to record their first win in the San Siro in over 30 years. They sit 4th in Serie A in one of the Champions League positions and have in Ciro Immobile the current Italian national side centre forward. They are no mugs and for Celtic to beat them twice in a fortnight is quite an achievement. Italian Newspaper Corriera Della Serra reported on the night’s events with the following words…

‘N’tcham’s goal unleashed wild enthusiasm among the 9000 Scots who filled the south curve. The north curve was closed for racism and listening to the intensity of the cheering you’d have thought you were in Glasgow. The strong ideological opposition between the supporters of the two teams had moments of tension especially away from the stadium on the night before the game. In the city centre two Scots were stabbed and a German accompanying them. In Trastevere a group of Celtic fans had to barricade themselves in a pub. Police arrested eight: three Scots for resisting a public official and five from Lazio who were found with sticks and knives near the bar.’

Sad as it is that three supporters were injured, the Italian Police were clearly on the ball and prevented further incidents. This is to be praised as visiting supporters have on occasion found the Carabinieri to be just as dangerous as any local hooligans. Predictable excuses from Scottish based tabloids that Celtic supporters were targeted because of the banners in section 111 at the home leg of the tie seemed spurious given the reputation of football fans in Rome for violence. Numerous supporters from Spurs, Liverpool, CSK Moscow and Manchester United have all been stabbed or badly beaten in the Italian capital in recent years. A game between Roma and Manchester United back provided one of the worst examples not only of organised attacks by local thugs on visiting supporters but of the dreadful behaviour of the local Police towards the away fans. One UK reporter wrote about what he had witnessed that night…

‘Eighteen United fans were ambushed by ultras, ten of them were stabbed and another fifty fans had to be bandaged up and repaired after unforgivable scenes when the Police embarked on a military style attack. Their batons hit pretty much everything that moved. Some images show riot sticks being used the wrong way round, heavy handle first, in a way which seems premeditated to cause maximum damage. The Carabinieri that night were having their debrief in the same part of the bus park and we could see them embracing and high fiving. One guy, sweaty and breathless with his helmet tucked under his arm was swishing his baton through the air re-enacting his best shots. His colleagues were laughing and clapping-celebrating it seemed.’

A young female supporter at that game was videoing the police brutality when at least three policemen, faces covered, identification numbers removed from their uniforms punched her and snatch her camera, she is then hit with a baton for no other reason than filming police officers behaving brutally.

It’s perhaps correct given the prevailing culture of violence which hangs around Italian football to say that Celtic’s trip to Rome was relatively speaking trouble free. Perhaps the much reported ‘ideological differences’ between Celtic and Lazio fans meant the Police were well prepared and worked to a plan in order to prevent trouble. They themselves have been under scrutiny after events at the Roma v Manchester United match outlined above and thankfully behaved more professionally when Celtic fans were in town.

It’s a labour of love following Celtic around Europe and something I did more of in my younger days before the demands of work and life curtailed those opportunities. Those supporters who do travel abroad to back Celtic occasionally endure poor treatment in places they visit but  more often than not their infectious good humour and passion for their club makes them friends abroad rather than enemies. There are clubs who have real nasty elements following them, we all know who they are, but Celtic supporters are not generally in Europe looking for trouble although they have in the past responded to violence meted out to them. We saw this in Amsterdam a few years back in the notorious ‘Fenian lamppost’ incident when plain clothes police officers behaved despicably towards visiting fans. Celtic fans abroad may drink a lot and some may be a bit uncouth at times but aren’t generally looking for bother.

Some of the incidents I’ve seen or heard of about Celts on their travels have made me smile. The rush hour commuters on the Brussels underground treated to hundreds of Celtic fans singing ‘Walk with me oh my Lord’ as they headed to Anderlecht. Or the disabled school kids on a cross channel ferry, who initially looked nervous as scores of football supporters entered the lounge. They were soon singing, laughing and sporting Celtic souvenirs as the fans interacted with them. Their teachers were given a good amount of money collected from among the supporters for the children. Then there was Seville. Was there ever a more joyous celebration of what Celtic is all about? The colour, the noise, the sheer good humour of 80,000 Celtic fans there for a fiesta. Their reaction to defeat that night was telling too as FC Porto supporters were applauded on the long walk back to town after the game. Compare that to events in Manchester in 2008.

For younger fans, following Celtic to some European city is a bit of an adventure. You might never go to Romania or Kazakhstan again but you can say you were there backing the hoops. Some funny stories from those travels include the Celtic fan in Germany who was making progress chatting up a young lady in a bar only to find that ‘she’ was in fact a guy. The online banter with Fenerbahce fans when two of their misguided supporters posted threatening pictures with faces covered and cruel looking knives in hand. Celtic fans responded with faces covered pics brandishing everything from a spoon, a packet of Turkish delights, a toothbrush and a hoover. The decent Fenerbahce fans joined in with images of them brandishing items such as hair straighteners, a fishing net and a food mixer. It was good to see two sets of rival supporters using humour to relate to each other. Needless to say Celtic supporters enjoyed their trip to Turkey and there were no problems.

The availability of cheap air travel has made reaching far flung European cities easier for fans than it was in the days when it took 36 hours to reach Madrid on a bus with no toilet. I hope supporters of the grand old team continue to follow their team all over Europe and make friends on their travels. There will be places where caution is required but overall they will find a warm welcome. Tommy Burns once said "When you pull on that jersey you're not just playing for a football club, you're playing for a people and a cause" Most Celtic supporters know that they too are representing Celtic when they travel abroad and keep that in mind. 

Thankfully the vast majority do and impress the locals with their passion for their club and their friendliness. That’s the Celtic way and long may it continue.

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