Every so often events conspire to make us question whether there is indeed some footballing god directing proceedings from, somewhere. After UEFA’s initial decision to remove Swiss club FC Sion from the Europa League, the club they had previously beaten on aggregate in the final playoff round–that club being Celtic FC–were awarded their place in Group I in their stead. Thrown into a rather deep group containing the likes of La Liga’s Atlético Madrid, French representative Stade Rennais, and a Serie A side in Udinese likely of Champions League calibre, it appeared the Scottish side should have been cursing that football god for their rotten luck at being granted a reprieve in Europe yet likely destined to advance no further against the quality saturating that particular group.
The Zeus of football rarely spells out his omnipotent power so clearly though, so we must work a bit harder to seek out the divine inspiration.
Either through a deity’s hand or just sheer coincidence, Celtic’s next two Europa League fixtures see them travel to Rennes to play at Route de Lorient against Rennes for the first time before entertaining their Breton opponents back in Parkhead. While both clubs have been active in European competitions over the decades, their paths have never crossed until these two Group I matches were scheduled (or more accurately, when Celtic replaced FC Sion). Now, perhaps this comes down to Celtic more often finding themselves in Champions League play until recently, whereas Stade Rennais have popped up principally in UEFA Cup competitions and Europe’s more ancillary events. The Ligue Un club’s last match against a Scottish side goes back to the 1971/72 Cup Winners Cup, as les Rouges et Noirs were the first squad Rangers put out on their way to the trophy that season. While most are familiar now with how Celtic arrived at this intersection, for Stade Rennais they took the final Europa League playoff spot allocated to the French top flight despite finishing 6th after last season’s league champions Lille OSC also captured the Coupe de France, while Champions League qualifiers Olympique Marseille won the Coupe de la Ligue, both of which came with a European spot.
What perhaps will make this initial meeting of the two clubs unique is that, when those players in green and white hoops take to the pitch, they will witness banners proclaiming a Celtic Kop in the Tribune Mordelles, but the colours will be in red and black of Stade Rennais. These would be signs from the Breton club’s supporters group Roazhon Celtic Kop, or RCK, a dedicated set of Rennes supporters often classified as ultras. Rather than finding a Celtic Kop cheering on the lads Neil Lennon runs out in France, singing Hail, Hail, they will instead most likely hear RCK chanting for Frédéric Antonetti’s squad R-O-A-Z-H-O-N, Roazhon Celtic Kop! or Allez les Rouges et Noirs. In a similar fashion to how many Celtic supporters still identify with the club’s historic Irish roots, incorporating traditions, songs, and aspects of Celtic symbolism into their football rituals, so do RCK and other supporters of Stade Rennais. Rather than flying the tricolours of Ireland when not waving a flag with a shamrock, these Celtic fans prefer the black and white banner of Brittany, or as it’s known in the Breton language, the Gwenn-ha-du.
Despite these clubs and their faithful never having shared a pitch or a stadium before now, they have shared a common identification with a Celtic culture going back centuries. The Bhoys from Alba and the Roazhon from Breizh are representative sides of two historical Celtic nations as well the Celtic League, a non-governmental organisation recognised by the United Nations. The cultural affinity shared by both supporters of Celtic FC and Stade Rennais also include a minority that channel this identification into causes that stretch beyond language or social customs neither club particularly endorses nor encourages. For the Glasgow club, this would be a nod to Irish republicanism, whereas for Rennes their cry would be for Breton nationalism.
Although it might seem a stretch to consider fans from a region in France to be as Celtic as, well, Celtic, census results taken from the respective nations showed that Brittany has a stronger set of individuals still fluent in a Gaelic language, with 3% of the population reporting Breton competency as opposed to the 1.2% found in Scotland speaking Scottish Gaelic. Further, while modern football finds players from any part of the globe signing to play for any club, regardless of linguistic, cultural, or national boundaries, the players that take to the pitch in these encounters will presumably have even less of an association with anything Celtic other than in name, but it is important to consider that the continual draw upon Celtic heritage for songs, chants, and other football rituals from both supporters is what keeps the linkage intact. So, Daniel Masjtorovic and Yann M’Vila are like brothers from other mothers, right? Not really, but some of their fans might be.
To follow up on the fates aligning, this season marks the 20th anniversary of RCK’s status as a supporters group for Stade Rennais, and part of their celebration now will be welcoming in another Celtic club into their stadium as well as traveling to Celtic Park in a fortnight. As this is the first meeting of the sides, there have yet been no unofficial associations across the clubs, much as Celtic FC have with German club FC St Pauli, but one imagines those making the trek from Glasgow to Rennes might just get the notion while mingling with les Rouges et Noirs fans in the capital of another Celtic nation. So, for the majority this might be just another opportunity to watch Celtic FC flail in Group I of the Europa League or a test for Neil Lennon as he tries to reignite the fight into his Bhoys, while others will be viewing to see if a French club can save a bit of face for the league during a time when some of their Champions League counterparts have not given a good accounting of Ligue Un.
As for the football god, he knew it was time for a true Celtic party. Zeus just needed to move a mountain or two so some Swiss club wouldn’t crash the jig. Or as the French might say, the gigue.
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