Rangers, Celtic and the Perils of a Zero-Sum Game


Scotland occupies a strange, outsize place in soccer’s landscape. By most measures, it is a small country: five and a half million people or so, roughly the same size as Slovakia, a little smaller than Bulgaria, half the size of Portugal.

But partly because of its historical significance to the sport — it is the place that invented passing, inspired professionalism, produced some of the game’s most celebrated players, and for a considerable period of time quite likely possessed the best or second-best national team in the world — it does not judge itself like a small country.

The fact, for example, that until it qualified for this summer’s postponed European Championship, Scotland had not been to a major tournament since 1998 was a source of the sort of embarrassment and disquiet that, in all likelihood, would not really happen in Slovakia (though, in fairness, Slovakia has been to major tournaments much more recently).

The nature of the Old Firm, too — both the size and scope of its clubs, with their vast stadiums, global fan bases, rich histories and unyielding enmity — distorts the reality of Scottish soccer.

What matters to Celtic and Rangers, at all times, is winning — to garland their own reputation and to dent that of their rival. It leads to a form of thinking in which tomorrow must necessarily be sacrificed for today, because losing today is unfathomable.

That logic has been on full display as the thought of 10 in a row consumed both clubs. Celtic has failed to refresh its squad, fearful of the consequences of getting it wrong. Rangers has had to invest heavily, often in players in their peak years, in order to catch up as quickly as possible.

But that approach is out of step with the most forward-thinking clubs in leagues of comparative size: places like Belgium, Denmark, Austria and, to an extent, even Portugal.