Celtic Park on a big night is one of the most intense experiences on planet football. And now Rangers are (temporarily no doubt) languishing a few leagues below their great rivals, there’s nothing greater than a Champions League game on their turf.
The amazing come-back by the Bhoys on Wednesday night, in the final qualifying game that gives the Club access to at least six more CL games, was one of those nights that live on in the souls of supporters, and pass into individual family traditions; stories told to future generations.
And there was another kind of joy in the Celtic boardroom, as the Club directors contemplated picking up around £20million for their participation in the Group stage.
The come-back after losing 2 – 0 in the 1st leg to Kazakhstan champions, Shakhtar Karagandy, with a winner in injury time, was tremendous, but the ecstatic scenes on the terraces which followed it, as collective joy swept through the crowd, was truly ‘religious’ in its intensity. And the first leg, in Kazakhstan reminded us just how close to ritual religion football can still remain.
Apparently, the day before the 1st leg, the Kazakh’s performed a ritual sacrifice; they slaughtered a sheep. When they heard about it, Uefa (and animal rights groups) were quick to condemn the practice, with the former threatening sanctions if it happened again.
But Shakhtar Karagandy’s manager,Viktor Kumykov, appeared puzzled by all the fuss. ‘Every club has their own pre-match traditions and rituals,’ he said. ‘All I can say is that we will try to respect our traditions. Certain traditions can have a psychological effect on players and help them to relax before the game.’
Millions of sheep get slaughtered every day, so people can eat them. What’s the difference when one poor sheep gets killed to help ‘relax’ the players before a big game? If they ate the sheep afterwards, would that make it OK?
The reality is that football probably has its distant origins in ritual sacrifice. What do you think the ‘ball’ represents? When I first travelled to the Far East, hitch-hiking through Afghanistan in the 1960s, some local lads in Herat took me to their game one Sunday. I’d been rabbiting on about football and they wanted me to see one of their big matches.
The ‘pitch’ was a stretch of stony desert where two circles of rocks about half a mile apart represented the ‘goals’. The players were on horseback. The ‘ball’ was the headless corpse of a goat.
The object of the exercise was to scoop up the bloody corpse (using fantastic riding skills) and dash for goal while the opposition did everything possible to stop you getting there. Within a few minutes, almost everyone was covered in fresh blood; red from head to toe. It looked like a Liverpool v Liverpool Reserves game.
That was the first time I understood how ritual sacrifice and ball games might have common roots which could go back thousands of years. The Afghans’ game was rooted in their love of horsemanship; their agricultural cousins preferred ritual human sacrifice, with the head of the victim tossed to the crowd, to roll through the fields and ensure fertility for the coming growing season.
No wonder football pitches sometimes feel like ‘sacred ground’.
Dr Rogan Taylor is the Director of the Football Industry Group at the University of Liverpool. He is also a writer and broadcaster, with five football books and numerous radio and TV contributions. He has acted as a special adviser to The FA, The Premier League and Premier League Clubs.