Scotland faces tough task to end sectarianism
By Desmond Kane
GLASGOW (Reuters) - The Scottish government's decision to appoint a full-time official to tackle racism in soccer, the country's national sport, received timely justification during last week's Champions League match between Rangers and Manchester United.
As the champions of Scotland and England took to the pitch, the Champions League theme music was drowned out by the traditionally protestant Rangers fans waving Northern Ireland flags, chanting support for paramilitary organisations and singing sectarian songs.
Much of their vitriol was aimed at bitter Glasgow rivals Celtic, whose roots are in the Irish Republic and who are regarded as a club supported mainly by Catholics.
On the previous night, Celtic fans could be heard singing songs endorsing Irish Republican paramilitary groups during a Champions League tie with Anderlecht.
While discrimination over skin colour is high on the agenda of Scotland's new racism officer, sectarianism is also a major issue.
Depressingly, there is barely any mention of sectarian singing in Scotland's local media, probably because historically such behaviour is regarded as the norm in the rivalry between the country's two biggest clubs.
Yet one newspaper columnist felt moved to remark that he "felt ashamed to be a Scot and a Glaswegian" during Rangers' encounter with United, describing their Ibrox Stadium as a "pit of sectarianism".
Rangers ended their policy of refusing to sign Catholics only in 1989 but their Dutch player Fernando Ricksen recently said that the climate of sectarianism in Scottish football forced his club's Catholic players to deny their religion.
"If you play for the Protestant people, you don't play for the Catholic people. If you can't handle that, if you're really a Catholic and you feel too much about it, you don't come to Rangers. You stay away," he said.
Scotland's government, in conjunction with soccer's European governing body UEFA and the Scottish Football Association (SFA), hope the appointment of a full-time "development worker" will address such issues.
Roddy McNulty, the Scotsman appointed to the role, aims to get across the message that there is no place for racism in Scotland but admits this could take some time.
"I think the vast majority of people who go to matches know that there is a problem," said McNulty. "But this initiative is not only about stamping out racism in Scottish football, it's also about tackling racism in Scottish society.
"Using football is a great way to get the message across to all children who see footballers as role models."
It is 14 months since Celtic's Neil Lennon retired from international football with Northern Ireland after receiving sectarian death threats yet the midfielder continues to have problems in Scotland.
In May, he escaped with minor injuries after being assaulted by two Rangers fans as he returned home from a league match with Motherwell.
But it is not only sectarianism that McNulty will have to address.
The first black player in Britain to be awarded a cap was Andrew Watson, who played three times for Scotland in 1881-82.
A century later, Celtic defender Paul Elliott and Rangers' Mark Walters were the first two high-profile black players to play in Scottish football. Both were subjected to racial abuse towards the end of the 1980s.
More recently, Celtic players Dianbobo Balde and Didier Agathe have encountered racial abuse on visits to Rangers.
Whether one man can help the situation is debatable and McNulty's appointment, which will cost the government 75,000 pounds over three years, has been branded a "politically correct notion" by critics.
Scotland's first minister Jack McConnell is not deterred. He describes sectarianism as Scotland's secret shame and has called for it to be consigned to "the dustbin of history". Experience suggests this will not happen overnight.