For Scottish sports fans, it’s hard to be a Calvinist right now, particularly for me since so much of the success has come at the expense of The Perfidious French. Here is what “Oor Wullie” says (fae “ma bucket“) has happened in the last few weeks
Celtic beat the reigning European Champions League holders, Rangers beat both the French and German Champions and the National Team sits proudly atop a qualifying group containing *both* World Cup Finalists
He actually understates Rangers’ achievement — the Huns beat the *6-time reigning* French champions. *Away from home.* The Stuttgart victory was good, but not entirely unexpected — at home against a team off to a bad start in its national league. But what kind of odds could you have gotten on the scoreline Lyon 0, Rangers 3. I didn’t see the game, but here are the highlights, from France’s Canal+ … one of the Rangers goals is scored by American DaMarcus Beasley.¹
Probably alone among Scottish-born Catholics, I do pull for Rangers when they play in Europe (Celtic gains via the UEFA rankings; I also have a Protestant father). Realistically, the Proddy-dogs need only to hold serve at home, and could probably even afford just an Ibrox draw against Barcelona, provided they beat Lyon at home. Ranger manager Walter Smith even admitted to the Daily Record after Tuesday’s win that his heart sank seeing the group his new-look team had been put into:
“I had no great ambitions about qualifying from the group – I was just hoping that we could learn from the experience of playing in there.
“After these first two games, we’ve given ourselves a better chance than Stuttgart and Lyon have at the moment.
“It’s now down to us but there’s a fine line between success and failure at this level. Hopefully we’ve got a chance now of getting through and of doing something in the home games especially. The aim is to try to grasp that opportunity.”
So what could Celtic do to match that? Beating the reigning European champions might count, and that was a game I DID see, at an Arlington sports bar (and was text-messaging G-Money throughout it). Here are the goals, Celtic 2, AC Milan 1:
You see everything game-relevant in that video, including how both Celtic goals were really defensive errors on AC Milan’s part (the first was an own-goal, though it took multiple-angled replays to see that). Truth be told, though it was exciting as all hell, it was a pretty sloppy game technically, played through nonstop rain (suiting Celtic’s style and hobbling the Italian thoroughbreds). But Celtic created few chances and the red-and-black really only looked like world-beaters for the 6-minute span during which they trailed 1-0. I was sitting next to two AC Milan fans and they were stunned at how their team “woke up” and started playing well only when they fell behind.
But wasn’t doesn’t really come through was so appalling about the penalty call. There is no question that Celtic defender Lee Naylor was marking Massimo Ambrosini closely; you might even say “draped all over him.” But the ball was unplayable, and Ambrosini simply flopped — he was not pulled down. No way. I texted Michael: “Worst. Penalty. Call. Ever.”; “absolutely diabolical,” the commentator on that YouTube video says; on the ESPN2-Spanish feed the sports bar had, the commentators were referring to the referee’s call as “un regalo” (a gift). Even the two AC Milan fans on my left were embarrassed by it. The staidly objective Independent said the penalty “was awarded after some opaque offence, probably related to Lee Naylor tussling with Massimo Ambrosini while the ball was nowhere near.” Agence France-Presse report I saw later at work pulled fewer punches:
There appeared little wrong with Naylor’s challenge in the 68th minute, but [referee Markus] Merk saw what no-one else in the 60,000 crowd did and awarded Milan a penalty.
Kaka, playing his 50th Champions League game, wasn’t going to refuse the gift and he calmly sent Boruc the wrong way from the spot.
Worst. Penalty. Call. Ever. I was reminded (and it was not even the first time during the game) why I have such an easy time rooting against Italy and against Serie A teams. They are the worst “floppers,” i.e., dishonorable liars, in sport. And an even worse moment happened later. Celtic went up 2-1 in injury time, and I was going nuts in the bar, yelling “justice reigns,” referring to the bad penalty. Then came the moment that prompted all kinds of sidebar articles about “controversial circumstances” and “dampened joy” and investigations by UEFA, Celtic and the Strathclyde Police. A Celtic fan ran onto the pitch and had some contact with the AC Milan’s goalkeeper Dida. Here’s a separate video of just that, though you also can see it at the end of the highlight video I posted above.
What you see in both that video and this picture is that the fan only brushes Dida on the shoulder. Further, Dida clearly took several steps toward the fan, in “you wanna mess with me” mode, before crumpling onto the ground and play acting, like he was hit upside the head with a lead pipe. He then stayed on the ground for several minutes and was carried off the field on a stretcher. For a shoulder tap. I. Am. Not. Kidding. Again, even the AC Milan fans I was sitting next to were laughing at Dida’s play-acting, which would have gotten him laughed out of pro wrestling school. The Italian TV commentators were also laughing and an Italian magazine mocked the episode as “clowning worthy of Buster Keaton” (anyone read/hear Italian better than I?)
Regardless of the dishonorable actions of their goalkeeper, AC Milan as an organization, led by a good conservative man of honor, seem to be acting with class and accepting that the actions of the Celtic supporter had nothing to do with the outcome.
“We will not appeal. It is a decision that I have agreed with the president Silvio Berlusconi,” Milan vice president Adriano Galliani told Italian TV. “It is a decision we have taken because we are European champions and must behave like that.”
Exactly, though one still wonders whether AC Milan would be sounding this tune if the video evidence of malingering weren’t so irrefutable. I think UEFA’s rules are ridiculously draconian about relatively minor things (fans invading the pitch was practically a tradition when I was growing up). But hopefully UEFA will do nothing more than fine Celtic. The game is not affected by a single nut’s essentially harmless act (and in a free society, there are limits on what can be done against fans) versus Dida’s sort of play-acting and game-spoiling (the players ARE acting under sanction of their clubs). And hopefully, the fan who could have jeopardized Celtic’s win will get smothered in Glaswegian kisses.
Speaking of Scottish victories over Italian teams in technically ugly but tension-filled games, there was also the Rugby World Cup at the weekend: Scotland 18, Italy 16, putting Scotland in the quarter-finals, where we’ll play Argentina this weekend. The Pumas beat France in France to win their group, so they’re not the pushovers they were when I was a boy. We haven’t beaten Argentina in a long time, but it’s always been close and I’d certainly rather play them than any of the three other group winners — New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.
But with the Italy game, my reaction was more relief than joy. I don’t think we should ever lose to Italy at rugby (though we have). And Scotland didn’t put the game away until the very end, giving up a penalty to the Italians with three minutes to play, and handing David Bortolussi a chance to go up 19-18, and I let out a cheer when the kick went just wide (no more than a few feet)
Like the Celtic game, this match was played in rain that never let up (and in St. Etienne, a stadium with bad memories for Scotland in World Cup group deciders). Like the Celtic game, the conditions forced a grind-it-out game with little offensive flair. In fact, Scotland never really came close to scoring a try for the whole game, and Italy only did the one time they did. Like Celtic, Scotland got their scores entirely from Italian mistakes near their own goal (in this case, giving up unnecessary and some outright-stupid penalties to a world-class kicker, giving Chris Paterson six shots, and all 18 needed points).
And like with the Celtic game, the Italians did some world-class flopping (and some dirty play too). Actually, they only did it once, but it really stood out because this is rugby. In fact the commentators, upon seeing the replay, said of the Italian writhing in pain: “he probably thinks this is Serie A or something” and then went on to say there also was an exaggerating Frenchman involved in a Namibian player getting sent off in their group game. But the thing about rugby is that the sport’s macho ethos (the “Give Blood; Play Rugby” bumper-stickers, e.g.) has long prevented “flopping for fouls” from becoming a problem. A potential malingerer would be laughed at, “get up, you wimp,” by his own teammates. I hope this disgraceful practice doesn’t infect another sport.
UPDATE: In the interest of equal time, and the principle that all of your country’s clubs are one team in Europe … I note that Aberdeen in the UEFA Cup today did what Celtic couldn’t do a couple of weeks ago and the national team couldn’t do last year: go to Ukraine and get a result. The Dons travelled to Dnepropetrovsk, currently second in the Ukrainian league, and got a 1-1 draw, enough to see them advance on away goals into the UEFA Cup group stage.
I shamefully admit I had mentally written off Aberdeen after they got only a 0-0 draw at Pittodrie. I don’t think a Scottish club other than Rangers and Celtic had won a European tie in years … a few years ago, Hibernian got blitzed by the same Dnepro team and Dunfermline already had crashed out of this year’s UEFA Cup to a side from … gulp … the Swedish second division. But congrats to the Dons as well … Celtic and Scotland would both have killed for a 1-1 draw on their recent Ukraine trips.
¹ I wonder if Rangers fans still sing their song that ends with the line “I’d rather be a darkie than a tim” (“tim” = “Catholic”).