Celtic FC players in green and white striped jerseys raise their arms in celebration on a soccer field
Celtic FC players celebrate their 2-1 victory over Inter Milan in the 1967 European Cup (AP/Press Association Images via Celtic Quick News)

While St. Patrick’s Day gives people of Irish descent around the world an opportunity to celebrate their heritage, soccer serves a key role with regard to Irish ethnicity in Scotland—and on a much more frequent basis than once a year. To help understand this we need to go back to May 25, 1967, when Celtic Football Club of Scotland defeated Inter Milan, 2-1, to become the first club from outside of Spain, Portugal, or Italy to win the European Cup (now the UEFA Champions League). Recognised as the most prestigious soccer trophy in Europe, only 22 clubs have managed to win it since its initiation in 1956.

A closer inspection of Celtic’s victory helps us begin to appreciate its magnitude and iconographic meaningfulness for many Catholics of Irish descent in Scotland. Celtic’s win has been noted, reported, and highlighted regularly through the years: particularly during its recent 50th anniversary celebration. Although other sides from Britain have won the trophy in subsequent decades, the socio-cultural significance of Celtic’s win goes beyond that of these other clubs.

A soccer player in a striped jersey holds the European Cup trophy flanked by men on military uniforms on both sides
Celtic FC captain Billy McNeill displays the European Cup trophy his club won by defeating Inter Milan in 1967 (VI-Images via The Guardian).

Celtic FC was born from within the Irish Catholic immigrant community in Scotland that was then, and varyingly still is, negotiating and surviving in an adverse socio-cultural-religious environment.  From 1888 until today, Celtic has been one of its most revered totems.  Fifty years after its 1967 victory, the enormity of the achievement was recalled by Scotland’s most eminent historian, Tom Devine, who encapsulated the extraordinary significance of the win for Catholics of Irish descent in Scotland, suggesting the event represented:

a key factor in the long story of the emancipation of the Catholic Irish in this country [Scotland]…… in terms of signal events, [it] probably stands alongside the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982.

Celtic’s origins begin with the cataclysmic Great Starvation (An Gorta Mor) in Ireland, when millions of people died or were forced to flee the British colonised island. One of the outcomes of this catastrophe for Scotland was that Irish Catholic migration led to the foundation, development, and establishment of Celtic FC in Glasgow. The purpose of the club’s formation was explained in a circular issued in January 1888:

The main object of the club is to supply the East End conferences of the St Vincent de Paul Society with the funds for the maintenance of the ‘dinner tables’ of our needy children in the missions of St Mary’s, Sacred Heart and St Michael’s. Many cases of sheer poverty are left unaided through lack of means. It is therefore with this object that we have set afloat the ‘Celtic’.

While not a Catholic football club, without Catholics, Catholicism and the post-Reformation revived Catholic Church in Scotland, there would be no Celtic. This fact is fundamental to understanding the club’s origins, appeal, evolution, resilience, identities, and the significance of its 1967 victory. Ex-Celtic player and manager Tommy Burns commented that Celtic footballers had to remember, ‘it’s more than just a football team they’re playing for. They’re playing for a cause and a people’.

A soccer player in a striped Celtic jersey holds the European Cup trophy overhead with an expression of joy
Celtic FC captain Billy McNeill holds the European Cup trophy (AP photo via The Guardian).

For Celtic and its supporters, 1967 has become a moment when the underdogs in Scottish society proved their worth on soccer’s biggest stage.  To assist in understanding the impact and legacy of Celtic’s win, my colleague John Kelly and I examined several commemorative accounts of the win, while we also conducted a focus group with supporters who attended the game in 1967.

In one commemorative book, a supporter wrote:

It was the best week of my short life.  I made my Confession on the 19th, my Holy Communion on the 20th, my Confirmation on the 24th and Celtic won the European Cup on the 25th.  I was the centre of the world that week.  When Tommy Gemmell scored the equaliser my two big brothers held me up and waved me about.  Could life get any better?

Another spoke of his encounters while attending the game in Lisbon:

As most of us were Catholics and it was a holiday of obligation we headed for a church.  There were a few old ladies in black, a few rich people with seats inside the alter area, and masses of Celtic fans with scarves and banners.  The locals were totally bemused.

One supporter who attended the match said that in Scotland, those of Irish immigrant descent in Scotland were, “no longer afraid to stand up and be counted”.  Another stated, “They were our heroes in a way that Muhammad Ali might be for black guys in America”. In 2017, journalist Dani Garavelli added her own gloss:

Their achievement was a powerful beacon of achievement for an immigrant community that had been forced to deal with sectarianism and political marginalisation in Scotland.

Although people from non-Catholic and non-Irish backgrounds have always supported Celtic, the club’s 1967 victory loses socio-cultural-religious significance unless considered in close relation to the history of the multi-generational Irish community in Scotland. To paraphrase historian C. L. R. James, when Celtic triumphed as European champions, on what other occasion was there ever – among those of Irish descent in Scotland at least – such enthusiasm, such an unforced sense of community, of the universal merged in a single team of (local) sporting representatives?

Celtic’s 1967 victory was a landmark and iconic moment in the social and cultural history of a country (Scotland) and a people (the offspring of Irish-Catholic immigrants) within and beyond that country. This is a success constantly remembered and memorialised in documentaries, through song, story, music, books, replica jerseys, fashion wear, and theatre.  Hugely celebrated during its 25 and 50 years anniversaries, the story of Lisbon represents a seemingly permanent link through generations of Celtic supporters.  It’s a connection to Celtic’s roots, purpose and rationale; to the Great Irish Starvation, founder Brother Walfrid, the Catholic Irish experience in Scotland, and the worldwide Irish diaspora.  The European Cup victory represents a monument to the survival, experience and success of a community – one that frequently views numerous aspects of its Irishness and Catholicism in Scotland, as yet marginalised, unrecognised and discriminated against.  It is in this context that Celtic’s 1967 victory demonstrates the symbolic capacity of sport to rise above events on the field of play.

Dr. Joseph M. Bradley is senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, Scotland, UK. He has authored, joint authored and edited several books, and written numerous journal and newspaper articles on sport and ethnic, national and religious identities and prejudice. A full version of the study referenced in this article can be found in the journal Soccer & Society.