WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) – This ought to be a ruinous time in Scottish soccer. With Rangers in the fourth tier and the national team in tatters, dark clouds should be packing together and starving the northern end of the British Isles of light, relegating its soccer scene to oblivion.
When Rangers' bankruptcy sent it to the Third Division, that was supposed to pretty much be it for serious professional football in Scotland. Overnight, broadcast rights for the Scottish Premier League were worthless, now that there was no more Old Firm played against Celtic four times a year. And when the money goes, the soccer follows out the door.
As for the Scottish national team, manager Craig Levein was recently fired after the Scots took just two points from their first four World Cup Qualifiers, essentially eliminating them 20 months before the World Cup kicks off. It will be the fourth consecutive tournament they miss. They haven't been to a Euro since 1996. Things are so bad that Scotland, ranked 70th in the world, was glad not to lose to bottom-feeders Luxembourg, ranked 144th in the world, in a friendly on Wednesday. They only won by a score of 2-1 - against a team that usually celebrates when it loses by just a goal or three.
But things are not as bad as all that.
Solely because of Celtic's European Cinderalla run.
A club like Celtic, a giant domestically but inconsequential on the European stage, isn't supposed to be able to compete in the UEFA Champions League . Ahead of the season, most people would have told you they aren't even worthy of being in the tournament, period.
Celtic, like all Scottish clubs these days, is made up of scraps and spare parts. Free agent signings and loans and bargain pickups. Its payroll is laughable when laid next to the tournament's other entrants. Its spine of Fraser Forster, Efe Ambrose, Kris Commons, Victor Wanyama and Georgios Samaras cost less than 6 million pounds, according to the Guardian. The rest of the squad it got virtually for free.
Grouped with world-beaters Barcelona , Spartak Moscow of the newly filthy-rich Russian league and Benfica, one of the best developers of talent in the world, Celtic stood no chance whatsoever, so the consensus rang out.
But Celtic held Benfica to a 0-0 draw in its opening game. Nobody paid it much mind until Celtic overturned a 1-2 deficit with 20 minutes remaining into a 3-2 victory, courtesy of Samaras's 90th-minute winner at Spartak. Suddenly, Celtic had four points from two. It was contending, sitting in second place in the group - one of the spots that grant a place in the Round of 16.
Away to Barca, Celtic even had the temerity to go ahead on a Samaras goal in the 18th minute. It took an Andres Iniesta strike on the brink of half-time and a 94th-minute Jordi Alba goal to save Barca's expensive bacon. Surely Celtic would collapse in its second game against Barca. It couldn't withstand the sort of pressure Barca applied forever.
And then it did. Hosting Barcelona, the Bhoys put on a defending clinic. They deftly covered one another and didn't succumb to endless fouling. Overall Celtic had just 16 per cent of possession and completed only 166 passes, as many as Barca's Xavi connected on by himself. Barca as a team completed 955 passes.
But on Celtic's sparse attacks, Wanyama thumped in a header off a corner in the 21st minute. And Tony Watt, just 18 years old, fresh off the bench, making his Champions League debut and newly acquired from Airdrie United for just 50,000 pounds, ripped a shot past Victor Valdes on a breakaway. Lionel Messi scored for Barca in the 91st minute. But the Catalans had no further retort.
For all their dominance, Barca couldn't answer the Scottish willpower. Celtic defended courageously, seeing out a clock that seemed to tick only every ten seconds or so. A packed Parkhead heaved as 60,000 chanted and cheered and sang The Fields of Athenry, the Irish folk song adopted by the iconic Catholic club. They couldn't wait for the game to be over, but didn't want it to end, this precious moment of significance.
Uber-fan Rod Stewart cried when the last whistle finally sounded.
Celtic sits on seven points now, three more than Benfica, four more than Spartak. It has got two games remaining, against the aforementioned pair. If it holds on, it will be counted among the 16 best clubs in Europe.
In the year of its supposed doom, Celtic has shone a light into the long, sinister tunnel facing Scottish soccer, like so many leagues that have had to fold in the game's financial arms race. Their football might be relevant yet.