The cup of shame
The mood among the press pack at Montevideo airport was one of tense disbelief. They had travelled thousands of miles from the UK to watch Celtic take on Racing Club of Argentina in the unofficial World Club Championship and their worst fears about the outcome of the tie had come to pass. Three brutal games had culminated in the explosion of violence they had witnessed in the Uruguayan capital that humid day. The match in Glasgow was a mere foretaste of what Celtic would face in Argentina. The spitting, tripping and targeting of key players like Jimmy Johnstone had left Celtic feeling uneasy about the trip to South America but for Manager Jock Stein, the chance to lay claim to the title of ‘World Champions’ was too alluring to resist.
As the pressmen chatted, one of the London based commentators, the brash Peter Lorenzo was scornful of Celtic and was loudly telling anyone who would listen that Celtic were lucky to win the European cup in the first place and had disgraced Britain with their violent reaction to Racing Club’s rough house tactics. Some of the Scottish reporters, well used to this sort of arrogance and condescension from people with an in built superiority complex and very little knowledge of Scottish football, tried to argue the case for Celtic. Hadn’t Lorenzo noticed the intimidation and provocation Celtic had endured on and off the field throughout the tie? Hadn’t he noticed the spitting which was so bad it actually led to some Celtic players washing their phlegm covered hair at half time? Hadn’t he noticed Ronnie Simpson knocked senseless by a metal bolt thrown from the crowd before a ball was kicked in the game in Buenos Aires? Lorenzo was having none of it and continued his loud tirade against Celtic much to the annoyance of some of the Scottish press men forced to listen to it. One of the Scots listening to the big Englishman was Jimmy Sanderson, a man noted for his no-nonsense and straight talking approach when he appeared on Radio Clyde’s phone in show during the 1970s and 80s. Sanderson was a tough little Scot who didn’t suffer fools gladly and Lorenzo had clearly gotten under his skin with his disparaging remarks about Celtic. Sanderson stood and approached the big Englishman with a determined look on his face. He then proceeded to shock the watching press corps by delivering a wicked right hook to Lorenzo’s jaw which floored the larger man and ended the abuse of Celtic there and then.
I once spoke to Bobby Murdoch about the games against Racing Club and he told me that by the time the play off in Montevideo came along, the players had had enough of their spitting, snarling, bullying tactics. As we sat on a train to Nitshill of all places where this footballing genius worked in a pub, he told me that a few of the players had decided to give as good as they got in the third match. ‘The spitting sickened us more than the kicking,’ he said, ‘They knew it was despised in our culture and did it at every opportunity. A few of us thought, right, if they want a fight they’ll get one.’ Johnstone was singled out for vicious abuse in every game but the assaults on the little winger in the play-off match plumbed new depths. French Reporter, Francis Thébaud, writing for the Mirroir de Football, watched in disbelief at the farce developing before his eyes…
“Johnstone, in the middle of the pitch slid the ball to Wallace and got free to receive the return. Martín without bothering about the ball, threw himself at Johnstone’s waist. Both fell and Johnstone struggled and Martín rolled on the ground as if he had been the victim of a blow. Without hesitating, Peréz the incompetent referee... sent Johnstone off! Thus he who had been the constant target of all the aggression since the beginning of the match... became the victim of a man whose aim should have been to protect the footballer against the fakers and the foulers. For my part, I have never seen such a staggering decision.”
Such blatantly biased refereeing and Racing Club’s continuing, incessant provocation led to some in the Celtic side seeking understandable revenge. Tommy Gemmell was captured on camera exacting retribution on one of the worst offenders. He said years later…
‘They were all standing about watching someone getting treatment with about 15 minutes to go. I saw this thug standing there with a great big grin on his face and decided that he wasn’t going to get away with it. I did a tiptoe through the tulips and hit him with one almighty kick to the bollocks. I can still hear him screaming to this day.’
Stein was furious and Chairman Bob Kelly, who valued Celtic’s sporting reputation more than anything, was crestfallen. His Celtic had lowered themselves to the level of the thugs from Buenos Aires and that hurt him deeply. Celtic ended the third game with seven players after a farce of a match and the wild men of Racing Club got the trophy they wanted so badly that no tactic was too low, no action too despicable. It was a bitter lesson on the depths some will descend to in order to win.
Kelly fined the whole squad £250, a lot of money in 1967, for rising to the bait in Montevideo. He would much rather Celtic lost than bring dishonour onto the club by behaving so poorly. Some fans understood that there’s only so much a team can take before they snap and hit back. As the BBC played images of Gemmell and Hughes misbehaving over and over it seemed as if none of the London based media were taking into account the provocation which preceded the brawl in Uruguay. It was a difficult time for Celtic who prized their good reputation so highly.
Over the next few years Celtic continued to impress in European football and defeated many fine sides. Their reputation as a good, sporting team was rebuilt and the memory of events in South America faded. It was fully 7 years later when those memories rose to the surface again as Atletico Madrid, with a few Argentinians in the side, arrived at Celtic Park for a European Cup Semi-final and proceeded to kick Celtic off the park. Celtic had learned the lessons of Montevideo and didn’t react. They had a strong referee who booked eight and sent off three Atletico players. UEFA though lacked the moral fibre to throw the thugs out of the competition and delivered a paltry fine to the cheats who prospered and reached the final. They led Bayern Munich 1-0 until a 90th minute equaliser secured a replay for the Germans which they won 4-0. Most Celtic fans were delighted to see the Spaniards lose.