Sports Editor & Writer
There has always been something particularly special about elite European competition. From the grey days of Real Madrid domination in the fifties and sixties, to the modern day circus and its dazzling spectacular of all that our little continent has to offer, the pinnacle of football takes place when the working man comes home.
However, ever since its inauguration as the ‘Fairs Cup’, the modern day Europa League has often paled in comparison to its wiser, sexier older brother, the Champions League. For the foreseeable future, our very own Glasgow Celtic find themselves cast amongst teams from places most would struggle to point to on a map, with giants such as Qarabag and HJK Helsinki making their annual appearance. But, with a rather modest number making their way to Celtic Park to loyally watch their team squeeze to a one-nil victory over the technically superior Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia, one has to wonder; does the average Glaswegian even care?
After their inglorious withdrawal from the Champions League, where they followed arch rivals Rangers in falling to the often overlooked and ridiculed Maribor of Slovenia, the inevitable Scottish champions dropped down into the less fancied Europa League and immediately one could see the catastrophic effect on the team. The much maligned Ronny Delia – whom one cannot help but suggest that the clearly intelligent Scandinavian is being used as a scapegoat by a greedy Celtic board – had to rush into drastic action, selling off a host of prized assets such as Fraser Forster, and bringing in less than adequate talent to a team which has played host to Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama in recent seasons (What would Henrik Larsson make of Jo-Inge Berget, or Tommy Boyd of Efe Ambrose?).
That said, against an incredibly talented Red Bull Salzburg side, who won an incredible nine matches in the Europa League before being curtailed by FC Basel, Celtic produced a wonderfully disciplined performance and thanks to some routine heroics from Craig Gordon, left Austria with a well-earned point; a rare bonus in a season of transition that has so far failed to get the pallet wet or the heart chanting.
Fast forward several weeks and the Hoops were thrust back into European action. The atmosphere in the ground was a peculiar mixture of vehemence and sedateness. Of course the club anthems were sung passionately – this goes without saying in Parkhead – but during game-time it was easy to spot the hardcore fans and those who had come without much expectation other than to see a well contended match. With about 17,000 less fans at the match than those who would later attend Celtic’s defeat to the plucky Hamilton Academical, one cannot helped but be surprised by the lack of interest and vigour with which the masses approached Zagreb.
However, to suggest that the Celtic fans do not care about the Europa League would be a touch unfair, and instead, it is perhaps the competition that is to blame. As mentioned, the Europa League can be compared to an unsuccessful younger brother; smart yet not smart enough, handsome yet not handsome enough, the Europa League simply does not hold the same appeal to which the Celtic faithful have been treated in recent years. Far off from the halcyon nights of beating Barcelona, Dinamo Zagreb simply do not offer the same appeal as the famous old Spaniards, nor does the competition to a group of fans who have found their team playing far and above the level they perhaps should have been.
One could argue that the closing of the upper tier was an unavoidable feature of a game in which the opponents average just shy of four thousand fans a match – eight teams in the Premiership average higher than this, including Kilmarnock. But instead, the turnout was symptomatic of the competition rather than the club. Celtic had more fans in attendance than any other team playing that night in the Europa League – including Tottenham – with a turnout of 28, 000. With the level of side that the Europa League attracts, Celtic fans can perhaps be excused for not being ecstatic in these early stages.
However, for those who did show face, the sea of green provided a usually buoyant atmosphere and supported their team with as much passion as they do every week. Rightly so, the faithful were treated to a victory, and although it is hard to argue that it was deserved, with Zagreb far more comfortable on the ball and forcing Gordon into yet more acts of superhuman agility, it is hard to argue that the faithful did not deserve it.
Celtic should just about squeeze through their group in the Europa League and may well find their supporters find their tickets as the tournament progresses. With some big names potentially just lying over the horizon, such as Inter Milan, it would appear that the less successful little brother has a trick or two up his sleeves. Whether or not this will drag the fans to Celtic Park is another matter.