There are several jokes doing the rounds at the moment about Rangers' troubling financial plight. "I'm a Celtic fan, but I just want to express my sadness about the boys in blue going into administration," goes one. "Such a great club, with such a proud history, such wonderful players and such fantastic supporters. All the best to everyone at Portsmouth Football Club."
Gallows humour has always played a part in the life of the long-suffering football fan, but there is something altogether different about the reaction that has been sparked in certain quarters by the turmoil affecting Rangers. The potential £75 million tax bill they face has raised the very real possibility that the Ibrox club could go out of existence, but rather than showing sympathy, supporters of their great rivals, Celtic, are revelling in it, and the club have even claimed that it would make no difference to them if the other half of the Old Firm was to disappear.
"The way we would look at it is, we don't need Rangers," said chief executive Peter Lawwell last week. "We have a strategy that we have embarked on that's independent of Rangers or any other club in Scotland."
It is fair to say that Celtic's history would look very different if Rangers had never existed. With only one team in Glasgow, the Bhoys would have dominated Scottish football to an unhealthy extent and fans of the game north of the border would have been deprived of some of the most evocative encounters in the history of British sport.
The 118,567 people who crammed into Ibrox to watch the Old Firm derby on the second day of 1939 would have had nowhere to go. Celtic's famous 7-1 annihilation of Rangers at Hampden Park in the 1957 Scottish League Cup final — Hampden in the Sun — would never have happened. With no great foes to sharpen their minds and keep them on their toes, it is even doubtful that Celtic would have emerged as a European force in the late 1960s.
If Rangers were to fold, another team could conceivably step into their shoes, but it seems unlikely. No other Scottish team can compete with the two clubs in terms of fanbase or international profile, and the television deals in place with Sky Sports and ESPN rely heavily on the cachet of the Old Firm rivalry. Scottish football has already begun to slip off the map in European competition in recent years. Rangers' demise would only expedite matters.
To suggest that Celtic could carry on regardless without their old rivals is like claiming that Othello would be the same play if Iago or Othello were abruptly scratched from the script. Both teams define themselves by their opposition to the other. It can, on occasion, spill over into repellent sectarianism, but the great rivalries — be it Ali and Frazier, Prost and Senna or Nadal and Federer — are what enable sport to transcend the perfunctory accumulation of points, wins and trophies that it might otherwise be. John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg played out one of tennis' great rivalries but after three years of fierce contests, the Swede retired in 1981 and McEnroe admitted that his career was never the same again.
The rich irony is that, with Rangers on the brink of oblivion, Celtic are enjoying a 15-match winning streak in the league that is their best run since the incredible 2003-04 season under Martin O'Neill. Sunday's 5-0 success at Hibernian took them 17 points clear of Rangers at the summit and the Scottish Premier League title now appears a formality.
The victory at Easter Road was celebrated against a backdrop of delirious schadenfreude, with fans unfurling a huge replica shirt bearing the letters 'HMRC' and unveiling a banner that read: 'We're having a party as Rangers die.' Given the deep enmity that exists between the clubs, it is no surprise to see one celebrating the misfortune of the other with such glee, but Celtic's supporters should pause to reflect that it can sometimes feel lonely at the top.
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