The Lisbon Lions — football as working class ballet

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Celtic’s Lisbon Lions were more than football heroes they were working class heroes, a group of young men from the West of Scotland who succeeded in transcending the limitations of their working class roots without ever seeking to break free of them, dedicated to the cause of bringing joy to their own.

For this was a team imbued with the ethos of service to the very communities that raised them and of which they were a product, proving in the process that art, creativity, and culture are not the exclusive preserve of the middle class.

From manager Jock Stein all the way through a roll call of now legendary names — Ronnie Simpson, Jim Craig, Tommy Gemmell, Bobby Murdoch, Billy McNeill, John Clark, Jimmy Johnstone, Willie Wallace, Stevie Chalmers, Bertie Auld, and Bobby Lennox — the Celtic team that emerged from the tunnel on that sun-soaked day at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon with their pale faces and lopsided features a study in contrast to the tanned and tall and impressive Italians of Inter Milan, who’d won the European Cup twice in the previous three years, achieved the unthinkable.

Over the ninety minutes that followed, they treated the world to an exhibition of total football years before Johann Cruyff and his famous Dutch team gave birth to the name.

The Portuguese capital on 25 May 1967 was home to the East End of Glasgow — or at least it seemed that way judging by the sea of green, white and gold that covered every inch of space. Stories of the inordinate efforts and adventures undertaken and endured to get there from Scotland would come to achieve their own legendary status in the years that followed, adding to the magic of an occasion that remains etched in Scottish and European sporting history.

Even now, watching footage the game fifty-two years on, is to watch the ethos of the collective in action; the very ethos from which the beautiful game derives its spiritual nourishment.

Uruguay’s great chronicler of the suffering masses of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano, mined this spiritual nourishment better than anyone, contrasting it with the dead weight of commerce and capitalism that has come to dominate the game over the years.

“Luckily, on the field you can still see,” Galeano writes, “even if only once in a long while, some insolent rascal who sets aside the script and commits the blunder of dribbling past the entire opposing side, the referee, and the crowd in the stands, all for the carnal delight of embracing the forbidden adventure of freedom.”

The image of Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone with the ball at his feet, effortlessly gliding past defenders, is impossible to resist when reading Galeano’s words. The discipline of rigid tactics and systems was to a player of his creativity tantamount to fixing a ball and chain to the ankle of Rudolph Nureyev.

Football, for one of the world’s greatest ever wingers, was a game of the soul and the human spirit; it was not the mechanical application of formations with its deadening fixation on zones, man marking, and the denial of space to the opposition. Such a philosophy rests on foundations of fear — fear of making a mistake, of losing a goal, of being caught out of position.

The Lisbon Lions played football with the joy of men for whom the expectation of winning banished the fear of losing. For them and manager, Jock Stein, the game was about putting the ball in the opposition’s net more times the oppositiom put it in yours. It was about self and group expression, about weaving patterns on the pitch that mesmerise not only the other team but supporters for whom drudgery was the norm away from the stadium.

For those precious 90 minutes on a Saturday the beauty and drama they were served up allowed them to experience the best of themselves vicariously through the exploits of players who understood their struggles and who spoke the same language.

Compared to top-flight football today, played by millionaires for clubs owned by billionaires, the contrast could not be more pointed or stark.

Stein was the conductor who knitted the creative genius of the likes of Johnstone and Lennox and Auld and Chalmers into a team. A man hewn from the same working class stock as some of the greatest British club managers there have ever been — Busby, Shankly, Paisley, Ferguson — he was a visionary whose impact not only on Scottish football but world football cannot be overstated.

The use of full backs as an attacking option was the football equivalent of Guderian’s Panzers marauding through France in 1940, and who better than Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig to occupy such an innovative role?

The extent to which every one of that Celtic team was comfortable on the ball was no accident either. In an era when football training typically consisted of long distance runs, punctuated by practice matches in which emphasis was placed on effort and stamina, Stein made sure his players ran and trained with a ball at their feet. He had them performing drills prioritising speed, balance, and movement, making sure the man on the ball always had multiple options as they attacked in waves.

As Hugh McIlvanney opined in his obituary of the man in 1985: “Stein didn’t just win things, he made football exciting and interesting — he added a bit of mystery to the magic. The players simply loved football under him; he innovated the training regime and truly brought the best of an extraordinary squad of players.”

The legend of the Lions is even more remarkable when you consider that when Jock Stein arrived at the club in 1965 they were in decline and hadn’t won a trophy in eight years. That just two years later, with only a couple of additions to that ’65 team, they became the first British club to win the European Cup, bears testament to his genius.

Though it has long been a truism embedded in Scottish working class culture that sentiment is an enemy to be defended against at all cost, memories of the Lisbon Lions bestriding the pitch of the Estadio Nacional in May 1967 cannot but help conjure a ton of the stuff. Perhaps the most significant moment of an event steeped in significance was the decision by Bertie Auld to start singing the Celtic Song in the tunnel as both teams were lined up waiting to walk out onto the pitch.

Within seconds of doing so, the tunnel echoed to a rousing rendition of a song that remains to this day the club’s anthem with its distinctive and booming ‘Hail Hail’ chorus.

In that moment the legend of the Lisbon Lions was born.


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