The Battle of Montevideo: Celtic Under Siege by Brian Belton; The History Press; 159 pages illustrated throughout b/w; £12.99 paperback
If you have “Tears in Argentina” by Tom Campbell, this book would not be out of place beside it on the shelf. Unlike Campbell’s excellent account of the three games that made up the 1967 World Club Championship, Brian Belton’s book, 40 years in gestation, attempts to explain the extraordinarily alien environment the players and management found themselves in when they got to South America and discovered that they had entered a world where they must have imagined themselves, in terms of their football environment, “Isolated in a mad place full of boggling insanity and populated by stary-eyed lunatics, foaming with simmering aggression that sporadically and unpredictably boiled over into raw hatred and named violence.”
While this description could apply to Ibrox stadium on a Saturday afternoon, there’s no doubt that in Argentina and Uruguay at that time the Celts were, “Strangers in a strange land, they were surrounded; under siege physically, geographically, spiritually and psychologically.”
Belton accounts for the attitude of Celtic’s hosts – at first a fascination akin to ‘What do they think they are doing coming here’, the “deeply observational gaze of a foe studying an enemy trying to gain clues about how to destroy them from ‘tells’ of demeanour” – by providing us with some background to the nature of South American football, specifically as it developed in Argentina and Uruguay. The early incarnations of the World Cup, the Copa Libertadores and the shaping of football culture in Latin America are covered, as is the history of Racing Club.
No less interesting are Belton’s reflections on the various incarnations of the World Club Championship itself and what it came to represent for South American clubs offered the opportunity to act out “manifestations of the national personality of defiance, independence and solidarity” against what was perceived in many quarters to be representatives of European colonialism. The fervour and passion that South American fans have for their club sides reached fever pitch when it came to the Copa or the World Club Championship.
As a 12-year-old living in Montevideo at the time of the game Belton is in a better position than most Celtic historians to gauge the mood in the city at the time. He describes his joy at getting his hands on tickets for the deciding match and his unexpected chance of meeting his heroes outside their hotel:
“I spent hours outside the Victoria Plaza Hotel hoping to catch a glimpse of the players’ arrival. But when they did turn up we got more time to look at them than we expected. The Scots got to the hotel to find that their rooms were not available. However, the Celtic directors… were told that an unusual number of prostitutes had recently been seen in the hotel and that there was the potential that the Celtic players would be ‘compromised’ by the call girls. According to the Uruguayan FA they did not ‘put anything past’ Argentine clubs. With the exception of Jock Stein, the Celtic officials were observant Catholics, so the manager made arrangemnts to immediately brief his players of the situation. Quite what they did with the news is anybody’s guess.”
The part played by the head injury to Ronnie Simpson in the first match in Argentina is perhaps a bit over-stated, the premise being that with Ronnie in goal – with his calming influence over his less experienced team mates – in that hostile stadium the result might have been different, but apart from that, this is a fascinating history of a remarkable football match. The accompanying photographs, many of which I hadn’t seen before and which feature the players off the field in Montevideo, enhance the narrative and to me added to the sense of atmosphere conveyed by Belton.
In his conclusion, the author argues that the fall-out from the three games played in 1967, far from being a footnote in the history of Celtic which until fairly recently was spoken of, if at all, in hushed tones, was actually “a catalyst for changing the world game.” The cynicism and gamesmanship employed by Racing Club have, albeit in a watered-down form, been adopted by almost every major club participating in big competitions (and domestic leagues) while the ‘Europeanisation’ of Latin American footballers has in turn diluted the worst excesses of South American hostility towards Europe in a football context: “This is what I think of as the meaning of what Celtic and Racing did just over four decades ago. strange as it may seem it built bridges; it was a start. as all beginnings it was something of a ‘big bang’. Unlike the intercontinental clashes that took place before, northern Europe was brought into the mix, and Britain, the place where football began – the last bastion of the old ways. Games between national sides did not have the same power; they could not wholly represent the roots of tradition that existed in places like Glasgow and Avalleneda.”
The last word goes to Jimmy McGrory, who wrote to the author in 1976 on the subject of the ill-fated South American adventure: “I am not sure if two teams and two or three games make a World Championship or what being able to say a team are world champions is worth. For Celtic supporters, Celtic will always be the best team in the world and no trophy will prove that better or less. The idea is that if Celtic does not win, the team will win the next time. Football might be about winning, but it is more about the hope of winning. If Celtic were guaranteed to win every game there would not be much point in coming to watch games. Successful teams know that losing is not an end in itself but a lesson in how they might win. That probably is the biggest lesson to be learned from Celtic’s experience in South America in 1967. That is what I hope.”
A lesson a few of us could do well to remember the next time we are on the receiving end of a bad result.
Overall another worthy addition to the Celtic library and an NTV recommendation.