Sep 12 2012

Eurovision Long Contest Part 2

Published by at 10:47 am under Pohar

And, of course, it transpires there’s another way for Rangers to grab headlines all across Europe: Go into financial meltdown and be forced to begin life all over again as a fourth tier club. Just seven weeks after the Britski Belasi boys did me the solid of posting the first part of my European yarn on their cosmopolitan blog – less than two months on from my heart-felt assertion that Rangers’ only true environment, for me, was continental competition – my club went into administration and began a footballing adventure with a far blacker conclusion than any away goals exit to Viktoria Zizkov or Sparta Praha. Liquidation was confirmed in June and while there’s every reason to say the current incarnation is a brand new Rangers, different from the club founded in 1872, what’s beyond doubt is that their only true environment is the one in which they presently find themselves: The Scottish Football League Third Division.

This isn’t a tale or a fate unbeknown to followers of Slavic football. I still find myself trawling the internet for the historical whereabouts of the Red Star and the Inter of Bratislava. But while the first part of this particular tale of mine lamented Rangers’ inability to realise the scale of their infrastructure on the European stage, there can be no doubt their fiscal disintegration has created a Scottish football story as globally famous as Celtic’s European Cup win of 1967. Juventus and River Plate, clubs which have scaled greater heights than Rangers, may have suffered recent relegations but, like Manchester United and Liverpool back in the day, the second tier was as far as they sunk. Fiorentina and Lokomotive Leipzig’s bankruptcies saw European finalists crashing and burning into the netherworld of their domestic lower leagues, yes, but neither of these famous institutions could claim a 140-year history or boast of having won their own national title more than any club on the planet, ever. 

So you’ll forgive me for taking so long to offer a continuation to Eurovision Long Contest – it’s been a devestating seven months, on so many levels, since last we spoke. And I’ll forgive you a titter at the irony of Part 1, in which this Bluenose of 35 years declared Rangers must do better in UEFA competition, and now sees them banned from it for three years and unable to qualify for the Champions League for at least four. I wanted Rangers to raise their profile on the continent and, whaddayaknow, it’s even higher now than when our nutter fringe was rioting through Manchester in 2008. That very desire on my part, that lust for European silver, was at the heart of Rangers’ liquidation. The sick irony continues into the fact that the financial disintegration occurred with me having finally witnessed the minimum I needed from Rangers on the international stage. The natural conclusion to Part 1′s narrative of personal ambition for my club was that we did indeed reach a European final. The UEFA Cup showpiece, against Zenit St Petersburg on 14th May 2008, at what was then the City of Manchester Stadium, was a highlight of my life and potentially The highlight of my football life. The aforementioned rioting put a serious dampner on it, and losing the match itself didn’t help, but it was almost the very moment for which Jagger and Richards coined “You can’t always get what you want …”

David Murray was the Rangers owner who, for me, tried more than sometimes. He tried, so very hard, all the time. Three and a half decades in the Rangers trenches had made me ultra aware of what my hopes and ambitions were for my club. I wanted us to win the European Cup, the Champions League. Hey - if the Rangers of 2012 is the same club then I still do. But what I needed, what I truly needed to see before I died, was us simply reaching a European final. I just had to see Rangers walk down a neutral tunnel, past a big UEFA trophy and onto a pristine pitch being watched by every armchair anorak on the continent. Against Zenit St Petersburg, we did just that and in the few years immediately after that final I thought I could die happy. Instead, Rangers died. Parents should never bury their children – fans should never out-live their club. But when there’s murder afoot the natural order is affronted. 

David Murray’s constant great endeavour of the last 23 years received little or no praise from the Rangers support, the loudest and most critical of whom had mostly been attracted to the club by his late 80s and early 90s work. In a final effort to give us EVERYTHING we wanted, he applied a tax avoidance system which Revenue and Customs called tax evasion. At the time of writing the matter is still in dispute but the potentail ramifications gave the Ibrox ingrates, the Murray-haters all the ammunition they needed.  He was forced to sell. He had no reason not to. A new owner called Whyte was welcomed with open arms by those who didn’t know or never appreciated what they had in Murray and within months Whyte, an asset stripper, had driven one of Europe’s most famous clubs into the ground.

Reaching that UEFA Cup Final took the edge off my European obsession. Losing Rangers has taken the edge off my love of football. For now at least. An instinct which kicked in when I was seven won’t ever disappear. But nothing makes you realise how much of a trickle-down effect your club has on your passion for all soccer than the loss of that very club. It’s been a crystalization where the crystal cuts deep. I’m too busy stemming the internal bleeding, too deeply immersed in the innards of Rangers, trapped in the present day car crash of Scottish football, to properly re-engage with what now seems like an innocent, almost naive fixation on the pan-European.  But this is merely an exacerbation of the disadvantage I was already at when I scrawled Part 1. 

Even if Rangers had remained financially stable since December 2011, even if we were still flying as high as it’s possible to fly in the SPL,  I’d still be scrambling to recount fast-fading memories of emotional responses to European sides. When trying to describe a thirst, there’s nothing worse than supping a big cool glass of water. Manchester, Zenit and the penalties semi-final victory over Fiorentina which got us there, just quench, quench, quenched. To properly recount how my tale relates to, or even just includes Czech and Slovak clubs, I would have been better to tell it before 14th May 2008.

The first European club final I watched after applauding both Zenit and Rangers around the City of Manchester Stadium in fact featured Manchester United, and Chelsea. So I thought the slight decrease in interest I felt when watching this game on TV was down to the Match of the Day familiarity of the fixture. Even if it was being played in Moscow this was an all-English game. I’d attended plenty of those over the years, journeying south from Glasgow to add some reality to the Anglo TV pictures we’d been receiving north of Hadrian’s Wall for decades. English games are touristic for me in a British sense but seem far too run-of-the-mill, too domestic, to constitute a truly exciting European final. And perhaps the Champions League final of 2008, coming just a week after the biggest match of my life, was always bound to pale in my personal emotional slipstream.

But when back on the sofa for the following season’s UEFA Cup final - and it doesn’t get more polyglot than Shakhtar Donetsk and Werder Bremen trading Bazilian goals on the Asian side of the Bosphorous - the full impact of Rangers-Zenit 2008 kicked in: A personal catharsis was suddenly apparent. I realised that my preoccupation with European club finals – memorising every winner and runner-up of all three competitions since they began in the mid-fifties, maintaining a vast video collection of each season’s finals since the early 90s, and trying to see all 101 European finalists in the flesh – had been as fuelled by Rangers’ inability to reach one of these ultimate glamour matches since I was out of nappies as it was by my natural xenophilia. 

I was so deeply absorbed in the history of European competition because I so deeply wanted Rangers to be making that very kind of history again. When your club keeps missing out on European finals during your lifetime yet has reached those finals several times in the past, when your main rival in domestic competition and greatest foe on earth has won the biggest European trophy of them all but your club hasn’t, and when your domestic league forces you to play the same teams four times a season for over 30 years, you will cling to all that is foreign, different, adventurous and just downright full of exponential possiblity: You will be consumed by the avenues available for proper glory, for genuinely new heights; Your imagination goes to what could happen in the future to break up the monotonous aspects of the past and present. I fixated on one particular goal for my club - and eventually, like the narrative arc of a chivalric romance, I got that Rangers European final – but for the 30 years I supported Rangers prior to Manchester, most seasons resulted in continetal disappointment, and absolutely no finals. So, by way of psychological compensation, I would continually gaze into two worlds experienced only by others: 

Firstly, I would eat up all the stats on European club football history and watch the finals of all three, then both competitions each season, like they were some kind of soccer porn. Secondly, sticking with fantasy, I’d imagine what it must have been like to be a Rangers fan of the previous generation, when our club made three finals in 11 years (four if you want to throw in the Super Cup, which Rangers inadvertantly invented to compensate for our European ban of 1972/73 and mark our centenary season, by inviting European Cup-holders Ajax for a home-and-away gig). So I’d ask my uncle about it. He’d tell me about the greatest Ibrox atmosphere of his life, against Torino in the quarter-final of that riotously triumphant 71/72 Cup-Winners’ Cup campaign. Our window cleaner, a doyen of the local Rangers Supporters Association, was older still and he recalled many Rangers fans actually being pleased for Celtic in 1967, sure that if our historically inferior derby rivals could lift the European Cup, Rangers would soon follow suit.

My dad recounted the apocryphal tale of England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, coming off the pitch at Wembley in 1967 having just lost to Scotland and remarking to John Greig of Rangers and Bobby Lennox of Celtic, “Oh well, lads – at least that’s another season over”, to which the Old Firm duo replied, “Not for us, Bobby - we’ve still got the European Cup and Cup Winners’-Cup finals to play”. I’d scour any football book for pictures and tales of Rangers inEurope in the sixties and early 70s – and Red Star Bratislava featured in a way I never realised would become so painfully apt. 

Alex Anderson

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