Last May, as the UEFA Cup approached its riveting climax, the host city of Seville found itself awash in a sea of green – a rather atypical colour for the dry streets of the Andalusian capital in the midst of summer. But no matter where Celtic FC plays – whether near or far from its Glasgow roots – a flood of faithful supporters is certain to follow. If you inject the emotional charge of a European championship match into the mix, the magnetic pull on those whose hearts bleed Celtic green becomes all but irresistible.
For the occasion, upwards of 80,000 supporters bearing the distinctive hoop-green jerseys made the pilgrimage to southern Spain to witness the 2003 UEFA Cup title match that pitted Celtic’s “Bhoys” against FC Porto of Portugal. Hoping to refresh the taste of past European glories, the mass of Celtic fans transformed Seville from quiet neutral venue to electric home ground – never mind the fact that the site of the Final, the Estadio Olympico, only had room for 45,000 spectators.
Although simple mathematics told them that not even half of those who descended upon the Spanish city would find themselves fortunate enough to see the game from inside the stadium, this small detail became a rallying cry rather than discouraging would-be pilgrims from not just around Europe, but also across the globe.
“Everyone felt like they had to be there,” said Eddie Toner, General Secretary of the Celtic Supporters Association. “Celtic supporters think of themselves as a community – a real family. They all wanted to go and be a part of the experience together.”
As the weekend prior to the Wednesday night showdown began, the looming fortress walls of the ancient Alcázar bore witness to a steady stream of shamrock-crested jerseys entering the city. Though the Spaniards’ weekend was winding down, the Celtic “extended” weekend was just getting into high gear. Fanning out from the banks of the Río Guadalquivir, the Hoops faithful filled the narrow streets and plazas in the city centre not only with their energy, but with their infectious and playful delight as well.
Over the course of a few days, Seville became a Celtic haven as it seemed everywhere you turned there were emerald smiles and songs. When the majority of the 25,000 Porto fans made their belated appearance the day before the match, the green-clad partygoers welcomed their opponents with open arms. Soaking in the sunshine, marvelling in the city’s architecture and sharing in the plentiful bounty of tapas and cervesas, Seville witnessed 100,000 football fanatics turn their city into a continuous fiesta of good will and Fair Play.
“Celtic and Porto fans revelled in the party together – it really became a carnival of football celebration,” beamed Toner. “It was a great example of what supporting a team should be about.”
Even after Porto’s Brazilian striker Derlei ended Celtic’s title hopes with a dramatic and heartbreaking goal in the 115th minute, the Celtic supporters maintained their good cheer.
Although football has too often in the past been beleaguered by the blight of a few ruffians who spoil the party at the expense of the real fans, the supporters of Celtic FC were a shining illustration of the meaning of Fair Play during their stay in Seville – jubilant in celebration, stalwart in support and although beaten in the score-line, utterly undefeated in spirit.
“Thanks to their exploits across Europe in recent years, Celtic’s travelling supporters have now become a byword for good-natured sporting friendship and unswerving devotion to their team,” said Celtic Executive Director Peter Lawwell.
FIFA couldn’t agree more and is proud to recognise the supporters of Celtic FC with the FIFA Fair Play Award 2003.