Both Celtic of Scotland and Barcelona of Spain symbolize minorities in countries historically hostile to their kin and kind. And they’re both overwhelmingly dominant in their respective leagues, along with an arch-rival that stands for everything their fans have traditionally abhorred.
Celtic was founded by a Catholic brother in 1887 to raise money for the poor in the East End of Glasgow. It thus came to represent the local Catholic minority, mostly made up of Irish immigrants who had fled the Great Famine. It also offered sporting counter-balance to the Protestant majority and their own team: Rangers. The frighteningly tense battles between the two clubs, known as the Old Firm, thus became a proxy for the long-standing conflict over Northern Ireland between the Catholics and the Protestants, the Irish and the British.
Barcelona, meanwhile, has long been the face of secessionist Catalonia’s protests against its Castillian-Spanish rulers in Madrid. When dictators like General Franco cracked down on the defiant region, they often did so by attempting to humiliate Barca. The club embodied the area in its century-old feud with Real Madrid, Franco’s team of choice.
In 1936, Barca’s club president was murdered by soldiers under orders from the capital city. In 1943, Barca got a locker room visit from Franco’s director of state security ahead of a Copa del Genéralisimo – renamed in honor of Franco – semifinal. His implied threats on their lives and scared Barca into throwing the game 11-1. When the sides faced off two weeks ago, sheets of paper forming a mosaic of the once-banned Catalan flag were held aloft by Barca’s fans, in the wake of yet another round of demonstrations seeking independence.
But their meeting (2:45 p.m. ET on FOX Soccer 2Go) will also draw an immense contrast.
Celtic will struggle and toil and hope to not be humiliated. It will pray that its rugged play will hold the little ball maestros at bay, that its talismanic Greek striker-cum-Adonis Giorgios Samaras can conjure up a moment of magic, or that Gary Hooper can bull his way all the way through to goal. And that maybe it can steal some unlikely away points like it did when it snuck out of Moscow with a 3-2 win over Spartak in hand on Oct. 2.
Barca will dance around its inferior opponents, and possibly put a touchdown’s worth of points on the board. Lionel Messi will bamboozle whoever dares go near him. Xavi will slice up the defense with the steady hand of a surgeon. Overlapping runs will overwhelm the flanks and sound alarm bells in the Scottish penalty area.
It is assumed that world-beaters Barca, which leads Group G in this stage with a perfect six points from two games, will build its lead over second-placed Celtic, which has four points, having also managed a draw with Benfica. Because no matter how many geopolitical and symbolic similarities these clubs share, Celtic is cursed by the geography that has blessed Barca.
Barca, by virtue of having been founded in a country with a large concentration of thriving and populous towns whose sons happened to prove good at running soccer clubs, rode the crest of the money wave that washed over soccer in the 1990s when satellite television got big. Celtic missed it and still treads water far adrift.
Spain is rife with big cities with beloved local clubs. They form a strong league that people all over the world will pay good money to watch. Scotland is a small, sparsely-populated country with only a handful of cities. It holds just two big clubs – one of which (Rangers) mismanaged itself into the fourth tier. Television rights are cheap; relatively small amounts of money trickle down to the clubs. And so Celtic could never hope to compete with Barcelona, even if its domestic dominance and cultural relevance is akin to Barca’s.
But this being soccer, nothing is set in stone. By having actually competed with Benfica and Spartak, this Celtic team that has already exceeded what anybody thought it capable of, achieved what its stark economic reality should preclude.
As these clubs and their devotees know well, sometimes the little guy wins one too.