Paris Saint-Germain’s €220 million superstar Neymar has said he wants to “help the club make history”. In Glasgow, where the Parisian juggernaut takes on Celtic on Tuesday, he has found the perfect place to start.
On a windy September evening, the players of United Glasgow FC are out knocking the ball around on their training ground, a few steps away from Hampden Park, Scotland’s national football stadium. They come from all walks of life, a mix of native Glaswegians, immigrants and refugees, all united by their love of the beautiful game.
“Football is a great game to play together, even if you don’t speak the same language,” says their coach Alan White. A charity worker, White founded the amateur team six years ago in an effort to bring communities together in a city divided by club loyalties and scarred by poverty.
United Glasgow’s original aim was to help bring asylum seekers and refugees out of their isolation. But White soon realised that there were also plenty of young working class people who couldn’t afford to play football, and that bringing the two together might help break down social barriers.
“Our aim is to provide regular access to people who are priced out of the game or suffer from any form of discrimination,” he says. That includes women and members of the LGBT community, who have long been pushed out of the sport amid entrenched sexism and homophobia.
The club now has two men’s teams and a women’s team. Its free training sessions are open to anyone who feels like dropping in, provided they adhere to United Glasgow’s principles of tolerance and inclusion.
“Football has such potential to bring people together,” says White. “But all too often in Glasgow it has divided people rather than unite them.”
Capital of football
Glasgow is unquestionably the football capital of Scotland, and possibly even of Europe. Edinburgh has Murrayfield, the national stadium for rugby; but Hampden Park could only have been on Clydeside. In total, the city has three football stadiums with capacities of over 50,000, a feat matched only by London and Istanbul.
In Rangers and Celtic, Glasgow has two of the continent’s oldest and most venerable clubs -- along with the fiercest, bitterest rivalry in the game. When the two teams meet in the Old Firm derby, the whole city tenses and the air becomes fraught with more than a century of antagonism.
The contrast with Paris is glaring. The French capital has only one stadium with over 50,000 seats -- the multi-purpose Stade de France -- and it lies in a neighbouring town. When its only top club was created in 1970, both the Old Firm clubs were already in their eighties. In recent years, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) have been raking in domestic titles. They have a beautiful stadium and a raucous crowd of their own. But many in Paris could be forgiven for not noticing.
The gap has only widened since the club’s Qatari takeover. Billionaires PSG are now a world apart from Glaswegian football culture. Celtic have only a fraction of their budget. But as always, Celtic will be hoping the passion, the history will overwhelm the visitors when they clash at Celtic Park, carrying the home team to an unlikely victory.
Known as Parkhead to the locals, Celtic Park is regularly described as the world’s loudest and most intimidating stadium. The visiting fans will be seated in the Lisbon Lions stand, named after Celtic’s 1967 European champions -- a reminder that while PSG have the money and the stars, Celtic have the history and the title they so covet.
The best and worst of football
The sheer intensity of Old Firm loyalties is a source of both pride and pain for Glasgow. The rivalry between Rangers and Celtic has long mirrored and exacerbated the faultlines within the city, most notably the religious divide between Protestants and Catholics.
To this day, blue and green fans take separate routes to Celtic Park and Ibrox, Rangers’ home, to avoid meeting. Kick-off is at lunchtime to prevent excessive drinking. A nationwide ban on alcohol inside football stadiums is still in force, 37 years after an infamous riot disrupted an Old Firm match at Hampden Park.
“There is a dark side to football, and it’s all too obvious in Glasgow,” says White, for whom overcoming this sectarian divide and breaking old taboos is at the heart of the United Glasgow project. “A lot of people here get turned off because of political or religious baggage,” he adds.
Rather than exacerbating old rivalries, White believes football can be an instrument to build bridges -- for instance between Scottish people and refugees, “who otherwise wouldn’t meet, because the media and mainstream politics certainly don’t encourage them to".
In this endeavour, United Glasgow has joined forces with local supporters of St Pauli, the German second-division club that has built an international reputation for its left-wing politics and activism against racism, sexism and homophobia. Its international partners include FC Lampedusa, an all-refugee team based in Hamburg that St Pauli helped set up.
“St Pauli and United Glasgow believe in the same things,” says White. “Whether the players are male or female, gay or straight, from Glasgow or Gambia, all you have to do is put a ball in between them and the barriers start to tumble.”
Date created : 2017-09-12