We Are Celtic Supporters by Richard Purdon (Hachette Publishing, £18.99 hardback) is an excellent book which is part social history and part contemporary snapshot of the diverse nature of the Celtic support. It features contributions from Jim Kerr, Billy Connolly, Andrew O’Hagan, Bono, Eddi Reader and Noel Gallagher, as well as from other less well-known but equally devoted fans from around the globe.
In this extract, Roberto Lombogardi from Rome, secretary of the Italian Celts, explains what the club means to him.
The original vision that Brother Walfrid discussed with board member John McLaughlin, when he was an organist at St. Mary’s in Abercrombie Street, was about mobilising the community through a sport that was popular with the host culture. In a time where global, consumer or secular principles are the standard ideas in modern society, Celtic and its supporters celebrate a founder that gifted them an inclusive, non-violent philosophy that did not involve the ideals of achieving power or wealth. As a Christian, Catholic and Marist Brother, Walfrid held aloft the anti-establishment character of Christ along with gifting Celtic an egalitarian philosophy and value system that bled into the very lives of the support. It’s these principles that have preserved Celtic’s identity for a vast number of supporters around the world who refuse to be fashioned by the mainstream. They reject Celtic’s original traditions being watered down or polluted. Social ills such as sectarianism and racism are at least two views out of kilter with the roots of why Celtic formed and the typical nature of the support.
Walfrid’s vision and Celtic’s story has found its way into the narrative of Catholic Europe among football supporters who have embraced Celtic as their first team. Travelling to Rome I arranged to meet secretary of the Italian Celts Roberto Longobardi. I was eager to find out how the ideas and philosophy round the club had shaped the lives of its supporters in Italy.
Coincidentally my hotel turned out to be in the Quadraro district of the city where Roberto and his girlfriend live. It’s a highly politicised working class quarter synonymous with anti-fascism. During the Second World War it was an active resistance stronghold, which the Nazis referred to as the Hornet’s Nest. The contempt in which occupying forces held its citizens led to a raid by the German army in April 1944. The area has since been recognised for its struggle, solidarity and courage in the face of fascism by the Italian authorities and was granted a gold medal for civil merit.
Entering the city, a Celtic top in a sports shop window heralds my arrival as I pass by priests smoking cigars, mods in pastel colours riding mopeds and tourists struggling with backpacks. At my journey’s end I meet Roberto, proudly sporting the green and white hoops and a scarf with the diagonal cross of St. Andrew and the Italian tricolour. The Italian fan greets me with a hug and orders a bizarrely popular bottle of Tennents Super for us both while explaining his introduction to the club we support: “Trying to describe my love for Celtic is not straightforward at all. I have to do it often here with my Italian friends when they say, ‘Scottish football is nothing.’ I tell them Celtic is not a simple football team, Celtic is not about football; it’s something other, something more. I support Celtic for religious, political and historical motives. In Italy it is different speaking about religion. I am a Catholic Christian, but I have a free mind. I don’t believe everything the church is doing but I believe in God. I don’t just talk about it all the time like the Americans do! It’s political because I’m against fascism, racism and sectarianism, and these are problems all over Europe. I know about the rage against Scottish Catholic people and in a similar way Italian culture has a problem with racism, it creeps into many areas of life in a subtle way.
“I did not begin to support Celtic for political reasons because I was very young when I became aware of the team. Subbuteo is very popular here and the first team I played with was Celtic because I was so attracted to the Hoops. Visually I think it was so important. It’s a powerful and beautiful image because it symbolises more than just a football top. I also read an article about the Lisbon Lions in an Italian magazine and how these eleven Scottish players changed the game, the first British team to win the European Cup and beat this mighty Italian team Inter Milan. The story made my heart fly and I realised what an important team Celtic was; it was more than football, there was a Celtic spirit, which I began to feel. My brother and I would look for the Celtic result in the newspaper every Monday, the history of this club became very important to me and who I am, they reflected something that tied up the kind of person I hoped to be.”
As with the New York Celtic supporters, the internet became an essential tool in unifying the Italian supporters’ club members scattered around the country. Forming in 2007 from the ashes of two previous clubs originally set up in the early 1990s, Italian Celts first gathered together in Finnegan’s Irish Pub to watch Celtic v Rangers. The sense of passion and camaraderie at that first event led to more being arranged in Italy and an organised trip to Scotland. Significantly Roberto talks about a sense of responsibility when first becoming part of the travelling support: “Pulling on the Hoops and being part of a group you feel the importance on your shoulders. Conduct is very important. If you know Celtic’s history, you understand that these are good motives to form a football club; you feel it in your spirit. It became a dream to travel to Scotland and visit Celtic Park. I wanted to see where Brother WaIfrid walked and I wanted to see where this club was born, where Walfrid helped the poor and the unemployed Irish people going to Scotland to survive. This is what inspired my passion; this is the reason I am a Celtic supporter. When I wear the Hoops I hold my head up high. Win lose or draw it’s not important to me because I am a Celtic supporter through and through. Nothing can change that. The Celtic philosophy is the reason; and it runs very deep. To explain to some of my friends here, it is very difficult. I find even some Celtic fans have forgotten the spirit of solidarity and charity. For some it is just about the team winning but for me it is very different because the spirit of the club and the team run parallel, you cannot pull away from the philosophy, the charity and the way of life. Celtic is not just a football team and we shouldn’t be just ordinary supporters.”
Roberto’s relationship with Celtic was formed from a distance, pre-internet. He talks about the club in spiritual, philosophical and cultural terms, making a significant impact on his formative years. Celtic reflected his politics and values. In Rome he became part of a Celtic community of supporters. The experience of going to see Celtic, meeting the home support and engaging with the culture in the East End of Glasgow has only added to the mystique and a sense of reverie: “In September 2008 we travelled from Italy to Glasgow with twenty-seven members to watch Celtic v Aberdeen. I can’t think of any experience I’ve had similar to this in Italy or in my life. We walked into the Gallowgate and the neon light began to spread along the front of the Barrowlands, it was a very atmospheric night. We decided to go to a concert by Charlie and the Bhoys in memory of Tommy Burns and the money raised was for a cancer charity. It was a journey into the Celtic spirit, something deep inside begins to stir. It was a very emotional experience with people of all ages, men, women and young people all singing Celtic songs in solidarity. People would just keep buying us drinks.
“The next morning we went back to visit Tim Land, Bar 67 and Bairds Bar. The locals understood that no other team would motivate us in this way. We walked to St Mary’s. You can still see the reason why Celtic was formed, that intense poverty still exists. You see the poor, the needy and you understand why a victory for Celtic is a victory in the lives of the people living in the area. Celtic is about trying to make a change in that culture. We played football with some other CSCs, who are friends of ours, and some young children from the Gallowgate. We swapped scarves and flags, made friends and sang ‘Willie Maley’ together.’”
Undoubtedly, part of what attracts Roberto to Celtic is the narrative; the history has become part of his own story in Italy. He recounts his experiences in Scotland or his local club to friends who fail to understand his passion for the club. What Celtic stands for gives Roberto context in his own community. His heroes are players that are widely celebrated for their skill but what is equally important is how they have conducted themselves as Celtic players and as people: “Yes, you could say I am a romantic. My Celtic heroes are the players who don’t use their talent to get rich. I pick the players who love the green and white: Tommy Burns, Jimmy Johnstone and Johnny Doyle. All of these players came from poor backgrounds; their dream was to play for Celtic. On film you can see the great desire and tremendous skill of Jimmy Johnstone but you can also feel how much the man loved to play for Celtic. He didn’t want to play for anyone else. He would have played for Celtic free of charge.
“On the Sunday morning after the game a few of us travelled to the grave of Johnny Doyle in Kilmarnock; it is important to remember this kind of player, a man who was a fan like me and you. If we lose that then we lose what the club is really about and what made it great in the first place. I’ve interviewed and met a few Celtic players for our website and you get to know the guys who love Celtic. I talked with Massimo Donati and he was not a good example of a Celtic player for two reasons. He doesn’t understand the spirit or the history. There is a strain of Italian players who only think of the money and it drives their whole life; it’s like an obsession, it robs them of the hunger for the game and the will to win. Donati asked me why I was a Celtic supporter. I told him, ‘Because this history is fantastic, the atmosphere is the best in the world and the supporters are the best in the world.’ I told him, ‘Celtic supporters want to see players that want to play for our club and that understand our history. I asked him various questions about the Green Mile, Barrowlands, the supporters, Charlie and the Bhoys. He was vacant; he just shrugged it off and said: ‘I don’t live in Glasgow.’ This was very difficult for me because, of course, I want to see Italian players at Celtic. But I want them to know what this club is about or it’s no good.
“Look at the situation with Paolo Di Canio. The only thing worse than a mercenary is a fascist. I have read the story about Di Canio also discovering Celtic through playing Subbuteo; that might be true. The problem was not his passion or ability, it was a political problem. He is a fascist, he soured his relationship with Celtic fans by giving the Nazi salute when he was a Lazio player. He has also in the past suggested a support of fascism. I think if you are a fascist, racist or sectarian person you would find it impossible to support Celtic. Di Canio destroyed his relationship; it is shameful.
“Enrico Annoni is a different story; he is a very good servant and popular player for Celtic. He was part of the team that stopped the ten-in-a-row. He brought character and he wasn’t afraid to go out in Glasgow to meet up with other players. He had a good relationship with the city, which is how it should be.”
Italian maverick Paolo Di Canio left Celtic fans with some unforgettable memories. In many ways he was typically Celtic, in that he was a skilled, passionate, entertaining goal scorer – among his goals were the cool penalty against Rangers in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup and a transcendent right-foot volley against Hearts at Parkhead. Though most of all, Celtic fans remember the sublime first touch with the left foot, the right foot over the keeper’s head and the right foot finding the net against Aberdeen for the goal of the season at Pittodrie. Despite being temperamental, difficult and ultimately unable to break Rangers’ dominance, memories of Di Canio’s 1996-97 season remained ultimately positive until his political beliefs emerged. Roberto explains it well: “Something like this might not matter to fans of other clubs but to Celtic fans it is very important for many reasons. If we don’t care what someone represents it’s very dangerous. Barcelona became the voice and expression of the Catalonian people when General Franco tried to suppress the culture and stop the language from existing. Real Madrid was Franco’s team, the team of the conformists. Barcelona is the team of liberty and the free. You can understand why a player like Cruyff with his long hair, his attitude and style of play went to Barca. We shouldn’t celebrate Di Canio’s time at Celtic because the Nazis and the holocaust still hang over us.
“Ninety-nine per cent of people in my country say they are Catholic Christian but they have no philosophy of helping their brothers, helping the poor. I hear racism against African people, against the Eastern Europeans. All I hear is, ‘it’s not my problem, so what, I can’t help.’ To be this cold is to be dead. They forget about the Italians, their own relatives that had to leave Italy to survive only a few generations ago for the Americas, Australia and other parts of Europe such as Scotland. The Barga Celtic Supporters remember this and have a very strong bond to the West of Scotland. The singer Paolo Nutini’s family come from Barga.Like the Irish, the Italian people left to find work and survive. Many have come back but they don’t forget their history. It becomes part of them. The culture between them becomes very strong.”
Undoubtedly the Italian Celts remain proud of the cultural Scottish- Italian links and can also boast of Giovanni Moscardini, the only Scottish-born Italian to play for Italy at international level. They’ve also kept an eye on Italian Kilmarnock midfielder Manuel Pascali who agreed to exchange his kit with Shunsuke Nakamura in aid of the club’s charitable work.
As Roberto explains: “Our supporters believe it is important to carry on the tradition of charity. We have a friend of the club in Switzerland, also a massive Celtic fan, who works in south east Thailand, trying to build a community while working with poor farmers and the children in the area. Manuel Pascali is a good man. He helped us by swapping his shirt with Naka and we auctioned it off. This kind of activity is very important: it is our reason for being, it’s why Brother Walfrid started the club and we will carry it on. As Celtic fans we carry the torch; you do what you can to help others. There would be no Celtic without this idea and you are not Celtic if you are not helping those in need.”