Man United, Rangers in historic duel

BY Jamie Trecker • September 13, 2010

This is the second in our season-long survey of the big games this season in European football. Check out the archive for past installments, and stay with the Fox family all season long for in-depth introductions to the clubs, the players, and the history of the European game for American readers.

The Champions League group stage gets underway Tuesday September 14th with an historic match between two world-famous clubs -- England’s Manchester United and its rival Glasgow Rangers of Scotland.

Manchester United is perhaps the most popular soccer team in America. If that seems strange, it shouldn’t.

Manchester United is American-owned, has a long and successful partnership with the New York Yankees, and radiates the glitz and glamour that accompanies one of the world’s most successful clubs.

Moreover, United has deep roots in America, with its teams having made regular stops on these shores, and enjoying a deep affection in the English, Scottish and Irish immigrant communities.

It helps that United is also one of the most electrifying teams to watch, bar none. Behind the skill of stars Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, and the raw power of England’s World Cup ace Wayne Rooney, United are capable of scoring from almost anywhere on the field.

Scotsman Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the undisputed great managers in the sport, has blended the classical Scots passing game with the more muscular English style, making the Manchester giants one of the toughest teams to beat over the past decade.

United back it up with trophies, too. They’ve collected an astonishing 58 of them, tied only with Liverpool in England for dominance. Their former player list reads like a “who’s who” of the world game, and includes Bobby Charlton, George Best (also a star in the NASL), Denis Law, Los Angeles’ David Beckham, Eric Cantona, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Today, some see United as a team that coasts on wealth and the “brand” that the team enjoys worldwide. That’s unfair to what is genuinely one of the great world clubs in the sport -- and it ignores the serious financial trouble the club may be in.

Under the ownership of the American Glazer family, who also run the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the soccer club has taken on enormous debt loads, and the British fans have been vitriolic in their opposition to the Floridians’ stewardship.

Nonetheless, the club keeps on winning, and is expected to be a legitimate challenger for the Champions League trophy this season. Certainly, there are far worse teams an American that is new to the sport could follow.

Their opponents, Glasgow Rangers, are one of the two de-facto “home clubs” virtually everyone in Scotland supports. The reasons for this will seem quaint to American ears, but are deadly serious inside Scotland.

Rangers are the team of the Protestant majority, while Glasgow Celtic represents the Irish Catholic immigrants. Celtic enjoys a far greater world-wide appreciation than Rangers, but Rangers probably have the bigger fan-base in their own country.

I spent much of my childhood in Scotland, and am one of the few who does not support either Glasgow team (I’m a Dundee United fan). This is extremely unusual, enough that it deserves to be remarked upon. Simply put, think of it as if everyone in America was either a Yankees or a Red Sox fan, on top of, say, supporting the local baseball team -- and that decision was based on centuries of sectarian strife.

As a child, the “Old Firm” matches (the nickname given to the biannual Celtic-Rangers clashes) could be terrifying affairs. They were often accompanied by fan violence of the sort we usually equate with English or Italian football, and were tinged with the nasty undercurrent of religious warfare. That’s because these games were proxies for the real religious warfare being fought in Northern Ireland and England at the time, and represented centuries of built-up, and dare I say unforgotten, grudges.

Today, the matches are no less passionate, but they are largely violence-free. The Scots -- who despise the English more than anything else -- were embarrassed in the 1970s to be associated with the hooliganism then paralyzing the game down South, and stopped it. That’s not to say the games aren’t tense, aren’t frantic, and aren’t nasty. But they are safe today for the casual fan.

Such passion often boiled over when Scottish clubs played in England in the past, and, at the international level, Scotland-England games became such flash points for trouble that the oldest international rivalry in the sport has been suspended. The local police in Glasgow and London simply don’t want to be bothered with it any longer.

Twenty years ago, this Rangers-Manchester United fixture would have been a genuinely competitive fixture and perhaps would have been labeled what the sport terms a “high risk” match for crowd control. That was before the bottom fell out of Scottish football, with current Rangers manager Walter Smith admitting that his league can no longer attract anything close to top-tier talent.

Today, the Scottish Premiership is a two-horse race between the Glasgow giants, and outside of Rangers’ magical run in the 2008 UEFA Cup, where they lost the final 2-0 to Russians Zenit St. Petersburg, few Scots teams have been able to make any noise in Europe.

As a result, those fans heading to Old Trafford this week will be genuinely surprised if Rangers can give United a go. If the current Rangers squad was to be compared to an American team, it might well be Syracuse, the once-great college football power that boasted Ernie Davis and Jim Brown, that is now an afterthought in the weekly polls, a regular bottom-feeder in the not-quite-so-tough Big East.

Rangers were once a proud powerhouse that fielded internationally famous names like Graeme Souness, Ally McCoist, Richard Gough, Paul Gascoigne and the current manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex. Today, the best known player to American ears will be Maurice Edu, a still developing midfielder; and England’s James Beattie, the club’s top summer pick-up (this speaks volumes: Beattie is hardly world-class).

To say this is a comedown is an understatement. For the team has a luminous past. Rangers have won the Scottish crown 53 times, eclipsing their bitter rivals at Parkhead by 11 titles. Celtic, however, has won a European Cup, something Rangers have never done, and remains their major challenger at home in an increasingly unimportant league.

Still, United vs. Rangers is a familiar, historic and important pairing in world club football. Both teams still enjoy wide audiences in America and around the world, and both stand alongside the greats of Britain’s soccer heritage.

Manchester United is beloved worldwide not only because it can arguably claim to being the greatest team in English football, but because it was home to many Scottish, Irish and Welsh players over the years.

And Rangers remain Rangers, even if diminished on the global stage. That makes their visit to Manchester this week an opportunity for a return to glory.

Red Devils’ supporters of the nervous sort might consider their own team to be facing a poisoned pawn. A comfortable win is expected; defeat in the opener of the new Champions League year will be unthinkable.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League.

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