Wearing a Celtic uniform means more than just throwing on a shirt and trotting out onto the pitch; it means carrying a community on your back. Those green and white stripes—“hoops,” as they’re known to the faithful—are like the flag of Glasgow’s Irish-Catholic population. And Celtic has been the heart of that community since 1888, when Brother Walfrid, an Irish-born priest, founded the club to “alleviate poverty” in the city’s working-class east end.
While they started out with vertical stripes (the hoops came in for the 1903 season), the team has been a green-and-white beacon from day one—a beacon for what, though, remains a controversial question. The club’s identity makes it not only a cultural touchstone in a city that has for centuries been a landing point for Irish immigrants, but also a lightning rod for controversy in a modern metropolis still grappling with a bitter historical division between its Catholic and Protestant populations. Over time, Celtic FC became—willingly or not—an icon of Irish republicanism, while crosstown foes Rangers wear the royal-blue mantle of Protestant unionist support. The historical baggage and centuries-old wounds of religious war and hatred have taken this sporting rivalry to some dark places. Even today—with Rangers demoted to the Third Division due to financial troubles—there are parts of Glasgow where wearing a Celtic jersey is an invitation to violence.
In recent years, however, both clubs—and Scotland as a whole—have worked to leave religion and politics behind, and let football just be football. And for most fans, Celtic Park awash in a sea of emerald green every other Saturday is about nothing more than showing love for one of the best-supported clubs in the world. When 60,000-plus hold their green scarves high for “The Bhoys” and belt out “You’ll Never Walk Alone” in unison from the cheap seats down to the touchline, it’s one of the great spectacles in sport: passion at its fullest; support at its most unequivocal.
And the team has rewarded the hoop-clad masses with 43 league titles, 49 cup wins and a famous Champions League triumph (then called the European Cup) in 1967. A trophy case like that in a stadium that shakes with the support of an entire community lets every player know that wearing those colours is as much a responsibility as it is an honour. As legendary manager Jock Stein said, “Celtic jerseys are not for second-best. They don’t shrink to fit inferior players.”
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.