GLASGOW, Scotland — One glorious night in the cauldron of Celtic Park showed there’s a glimmer of hope for the future of Scottish football.
Celtic overcoming the mighty Barcelona on club football’s biggest stage, the Champions League, provided an adrenaline shot to erase some of the negativity that has been engulfing the national sport.
With a disciplined approach not adopted by some financiers and unruly fans in Scottish football recently, Celtic’s dogged defense held off the four-time European champions to win 2-1 in Glasgow.
“It’s a very impressive result against the best team in the world,” Scottish Football Association chief executive Stewart Regan told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It gives Scottish football a lift when there’s a lot of negative stories around, at a time when it’s really needed, and showed some positive signs that things are not as bad as people might believe they are.
“It contributes to our confidence which is then reflected in how Scotland is perceived on an international stage.”
But Regan isn’t blinkered.
After all, it was only on Monday when he fired national team manager, Craig Levein, with Scotland’s hopes of reaching the 2014 World Cup already looking slim after the opening four qualifiers yielded just two points.
Scotland, one of the earliest football nations, is languishing at 56th in the FIFA rankings.
On-pitch matters, though, have been the least of Scotland’s troubles.
The season started with the country’s most successful team, Rangers, being forced to start again from the fourth tier after bitter legal fights over debts owed by the 54-time league champions resulted in the club’s collapse.
Even as Celtic’s match against Barcelona was kicking off, Scotland was reeling from the news that Hearts also has an unpaid tax bill which the Edinburgh club said threatens its existence.
“Yesterday’s announcement about Hearts was obviously quite concerning for the game and I don’t think we should be too complacent,” Regan said. “There’s a lot of work to do to restore Scottish football from a financial perspective and improve the product we’ve got.”
While Celtic has no immediate financial concerns, the club has been troubled by an even graver problem in recent years — a renewed outbreak of sectarianism. Celtic is traditionally supported by Irish Catholics, and Glasgow rival Rangers is mainly supported by Protestants.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon was the main target in a 2011 campaign of hatred and intimidation. A bullet and a mail bomb were sent through the post to Lennon but intercepted before reaching him, while he was also attacked by a fan on the touchline.
No wonder Lennon was pleased that Wednesday’s result put the global spotlight on his footballingachievements.
“As a manager, I don’t know if I will top that … it’s up there with anything I’ve achieved, not just in myfootball career, but in my life,” he said.
And what an achievement it was against Barcelona.
Two weeks ago, Celtic had led 1-0 at the Camp Nou only to collapse and allow Barca to score a stoppage time goal to win 2-1.
Again on Wednesday, Barca scored in the final moments. This time, though, Lionel Messi’s strike proved to be purely a consolation, as goals from Victor Wanyama and Tony Watt on Celtic’s rare incursions into Barca territory proved decisive.
The victory gave striker Miku, who is on loan at Celtic from Spanish side Getafe, some bragging rights.
“Too many people in Spain thought my transfer to Scotland was a backwards step but I don’t think so,” the Venezuelan said. “It’s not back — it’s a step in the same direction. People in Spain will respect football in Scotland more now.”
There is a depth of young talent in the Celtic team as well, with the match-winner Watt just 18 years old.
“We played the best team in the world and Tito Vilanova can bring on David Villa and Cesc Fabregas and I am bringing on an 18-year-old kid who cost 50,000 pounds ($79,850) from Airdrie,” Lennon said.
Scottish football looked to turn a corner in 2007-08 when first the national team came close to qualifying for the 2008 European Championship, having not reached a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup, and Rangers contested the 2008 UEFA Cup final.
But it’s been downhill since then, with Celtic not making the Champions League since the 2007-08 season or looking like repeating its 1967 European Cup success — the first for a British team.
“This is a great footballing country with great history whether it be club wise or nationally, and has produced some of the greatest players in the game,” Lennon said. “It is in a bit of a lull but we have a great club here. When we came into the competition this season what we wanted to do was gain respect for the players, for the club itself, which is very important because it has a great reputation in Europe, and obviously for the game here.”
The victory was also embraced by the Scottish government, which is leading the drive for independence from the United Kingdom in a 2014 referendum.
“I have no doubt that the team will be remembered for a long time and the result is being talked about around the world,” Scottish Sport Minister Shona Robison said in an email. “I am pleased to see a Scottish footballclub get the recognition it deserves and this is a much-needed boost for the game that can only serve to inspire everyone in Scottish football that anything is possible.”