The World Through Music and Culture

European League Bans Sectarian Songs

Celtic fan at an Old Firm game. Rangers Stadium, Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Maria Bakkalapulo)

Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)

Original broadcast on NPR’s Only A Game.

Fans heckling athletes is not a new fad. Ancient Olympiads had to endure rowdy spectators in Athens. Gladiators were booed and beheaded in the Roman Coliseum. So why are the Glasgow Rangers trying to stop their fans from singing and chanting certain team songs? Maria Bakkalapulo reports from Scotland. 

To listen to the full radio feature on NPR’s ONLY A GAME, CLICK HERE,

TRANSCRIPT: (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds on-location.)
Kenny and Jack are instantly likeable guys. The old friends have worked at the same entertainment venue in Glasgow for over a decade. But this friendship is challenged when it comes to the footballing rivalry between Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers, Scotland’s top two teams. The competition between Celtic and Rangers is one of the oldest in British sport with sectarian lines drawn back when the clubs formed over 120 years ago. Jack says he goes to the games a lot less these days. “I like football but the majority of fans now days, it is not football, it is a religion – Catholics against Protestants,” says Jack. “The Celtic football club is founded by the Irish and it is associated with Irish people. They don’t seem to care, a hatred. The shouting kicks in and someone starts a fight. The whole area just bursts out into fighting and it is all about Catholics and Protestants,
nothing to do with football.” I ask him if he feels the Rangers fans are more violent. Jack says, “yes, definitely. There is more hatred in them. I’ll probably get a bullet sent through the post now.”
The sectarianism between fans is a serious issue in Scotland, reflecting the political and religious divisions of neighboring Northern Ireland. A team takes on a social identity, explains Kenny: “football is for the masses. It is still a normal working mans sport. We all just sit together,” says Kenny. “For 80-90 minutes, you’re not a lawyer. I am not a cook. My pal is not a bar man. We are all Rangers fans and we are there to support the same thing.”
The way to antagonize your opponents is with songs. While both sides have their anthems that stir up animosity, there are three songs in particular sung by Rangers supporters that are considered to incite hatred, and are now banned -– The Famine Song, No Pope of Rome and Hullo, Hullo. Singing these are illegal in Scotland and will lead to arrest. The most offensive is the Billy Boys “Hullo, Hullo.”  Dr. John Kelly is a sports sociologist from Edinburgh University: “The Billy Boys were a razor gang in the 1930s who, among other things, slash with open razors, young Catholic boys and men, simply because they are Catholic. Suffice to say, there is one line that says “Hullo, Hullo, we are the Billy Boys, we are up to our knees in fienian blood, surrender or you’ll die because we were the Brigton Billy Boys.” They are singing about being up to their knees in Fenian blood, in Scottish discourse, Fenian is almost universally recognized to be synonymous with Catholic.”
On game day, It wasn’t hard to find fans in subways, buses and pubs singing “Hullo, Hullo.”  It’s the final game of the season. With the match predicted as “the Perfect Storm,” by the local press, a zero tolerance policy for sectarian behavior is strictly enforced. 1,000 extra police –  with horses on the streets, helicopters overhead, and snatch squads in the crowd – are here to ensure the fans behave.
Led by the Scottish Government, the Union of European Football Associations, or UEFA, the crackdown on sectarian songs is serious and the fans know it. Law enforcement wasn’t taking any chances after parcel bombs were sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other Celtic supporting public figures in recent weeks. The fans know they are being monitored closely….
Here, a Rangers fan sees me with a microphone and warns everyone in the crowd … “She’s recording… watch what you’re singing, boys,” the man shouts.
Before the game begins supporters were separated and police were everywhere. Inside the gates of the stadium, I meet Andy Kerr, President of Rangers Supporters Assembly, who agrees it is a problem the club has to tackle: “Yes, yes, I certainly do. Anything that is of a sectarian nature is offensive, we have to try and stamp it out. Otherwise, we are just going to be
under more and more pressure to get our house in order. So, now is the time to stop it.”
I ask Andy, “do you think sectarianism in Scotland can be stamped out by banning these songs?” He answers, “probably not. Our priority is to get it sorted out in the football environment. Obviously, it spans the whole social culture of Scotland. People have been trying a long, long time to do something about it. We are going to try and take the bull by the horns from the football perspective and try to get people to behave in a manner that we can all accept.”
 Banning alcohol has reduced violence at the games themselves, but at the same time expectations have risen for better conduct in society as a whole. With statistics showing race-related and domestic violence increasing as much as 140% on match days, the general public seeks action. Dr. Kelly: “It has become a bigger problem in recent years because along with sexism, racism, homophobia and some of the other deviant practices that exist in a football/ soccer stadium … these issues are being viewed by larger society as problematic and unacceptable.”
The game ends in a draw. Hundreds of neon vested police officers separate fans leaving the stadium to board buses home. The fans were taunting each other, and without the police
presence, violence would have been inevitable.
After the game at a Rangers pub, the beer is flowing and so were the sectarian songs. Kenny has no plans to stop singing …
“I enjoy singing my songs.. I will continue to sing my songs. I sing a vast majority of songs that have been sung for 100s of years. Since I was a kid going to IBrox. I sing, I support my team. I don’t personally find them offensive, or racist or sectarian. Rangers get portrayed as these evil sectarian bigots that we spend our days walking about wanting to beat up every Roman Catholic that we meet. That’s ridiculous.”
The sectarian issue has now hit Rangers where it really hurts – in the pocket. On Thursday, UEFA fined Rangers nearly 120,000 dollars and banned fans from the club’s next away game because of discriminatory chanting. They also received a suspended ban on a second away match in Europe. Rangers fans will be banned from a European game in Ibrox – the team’s home stadium – if they are are caught misbehaving over the next 3 years.

The sectarian issue has now hit Rangers where it really hurts – in the pocket. On Thursday, UEFA fined Rangers nearly 120,000 dollars and banned fans from the club’s next away game because of discriminatory chanting. They also received a suspended ban on a second away match in Europe. Rangers fans will be banned from a European game in Ibrox – the team’s home stadium – if they are are caught misbehaving over the next 3 years.

The message is clear, failure in tackling sectarian behavior is not an option.

END

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