On a warm, Caribbean evening back in 1996 two of the most important figures of the 20th century met for the first time. Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who died last week, and Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest ever boxer, who died earlier this year. Both were hated and revered, worshipped and reviled by different people at different times during their lives.
Castro’s recent death brought to mind their first encounter. In Havana, overlooking the harbour, in the company of Ali’s fourth wife, various assistants and confidantes, a CBS TV camera crew, a delegation from the Red Cross, various people from the Cuban state security apparatus and the greatest heavyweight boxer Ali didn’t fight; Teofilo Stevenson. The Cuban amateur won gold medals in the heavyweight division at the 72, 76 and 1980 Olympic Games. Ali, ten years his senior, won Olympic Gold in the 1960 games. Stevenson remained amateur and resisted the lure of the riches thrown at boxers in the 1970s, preferring to remain in Cuba. This certainly affected his bank balance but brought him a wealth of admirers, Ali included, as well as the position of national hero in his homeland. Stevenson and Ali had met before and although neither spoke the other’s language there was apparently a clear bond between them, so much so that Castro ordered Stevenson to accompany Ali and his entourage on their visit to Cuba as his unofficial representative.
Although only 54 years old Muhammad Ali was already in poor health. Parkinson’s Disease had cruelly curtailed Ali’s motor skills, he even relied on someone to help him get up from a seated position, and his speech, a weapon that was just as mighty as his strength and movement, was almost non-existent. Ali would go long periods without speaking at all, his voice, when it did come, was slow, slurred and quiet. A polarising figure in his prime, in retirement and poor health Ali was more popular than ever.
Ironically Castro was still in good health at the time. Despite living for a period in exile, taking part in a revolution, surviving numerous attempts on his life and smoking cigars most of his life he was surprisingly fit for a man in his 70s. His trademark jungle green fatigues were immaculately pressed and only his beard betrayed his age.
Two people whose lives had been marked by struggle, conflict, and controversy, who had, in different ways, symbolised their nations, nations who had been in a state of cold war with each other for decades, would be in the same room as each other for the first time, to pay each other their respects.
Aberdeen make the trip to Govan on Saturday for our second meeting with them this season. The red menace were, at one time, one of the finest sides in these islands. Their 1980’s side combined strength, speed and skill with an unbreakable team spirit. Guided by a genius, Govan born, ex-Rangers player. At their height they were a match for anyone and regularly put Rangers to the sword. They weren’t a likeable team though. Players like Miller, Strachan, Rougvie, Cooper and Simpson were aggressive and committed and so were hate figures for all but their own support. I didn’t like that Aberdeen side, but I did have a grudging respect for them.
I’m not sure how much respect there will be at Ibrox on Saturday. Antipathy, conceit, anger and apparent hatred I expect you’ll see, but probably not much respect. That’s a shame. Another ex-Rangers player from a little further downstream of Govan manages this current Aberdeen side. Like Alex Ferguson, Derek McInnes didn’t properly fulfil his potential at Rangers, but he was a likeable and fairly popular player. It would be nice if he was able to retain that as manager of Aberdeen, but I wouldn’t be putting my mortgage on it.
I’ve no special insight but it feels like there isn’t much respect at boardroom level either, that wasn’t always the case. During Aberdeen’s golden period the Director’s of both clubs were close and the relationships were very cordial. It might be coincidence, but Scottish football was in a far healthier place when our respective boards enjoyed each other’s mutual respect.
Where things are at their worst though is at supporter level. The hostility seems to be real. In the past a section of the Aberdeen support seemed to revel in causing as much offence as possible. I’m a big advocate for freedom of speech but the crassness of celebrating the career defining injury of a young Scottish international never mind singing about the deaths of fellow football supporters in the place where those deaths actually took place never ceases to amaze me. It’s hard to respect people who do this. I doubt they care.
They should though because there should be respect between our clubs. Not friendship or ‘special relationships’, but simply respect. Respect for the achievements of each club, respect for the time, effort and money the travelling support have invested in their side, respect for the players, some of who, however infrequently, are still capable for making us rise from our seats in excitement.
As someone who nearly lost his club I fully understand what my football club means to me and the irrationally big place it occupies in my life. I’m sure Aberdeen fans feel the same way about their club, indeed I’m positive they do. I can respect that. Let’s start there.
Aberdeen will probably go into the match as favourites. Although sitting one place and two points behind us in the league table they have two games in hand. Aberdeen’s form has been mixed since our last meeting. They were well beaten by Celtic last weekend following on from two victories away from home. They have players in their squad who are fast and direct and are adept on the break, something of an Achilles Heel for us.
Our form is poor. We were well beaten at Tynecastle on Wednesday and although enjoying plenty of possession against Thistle and Dundee we were far from convincing in victory against two struggling sides. The elation and excitement I felt when watching Warburton’s first competitive match in charge against Hibs in the Challenge Cup in the summer of 2015 has all but dissipated now. We don’t close down the opposition anymore, we don’t pass and move, we don’t take corners short and we don’t create the same amount of chances. There seems to be a problem with belief and with confidence. I’ve no idea what our best side is now, Waghorn and Tavernier are shadows of the players they were last season, Holt no longer ghosts into space, McKay and Wallace can’t find each other and the defence bring me out in hives every time a cross enters our box. I don’t accept that Dundee, Thistle and Ross County are better than Hibs, Falkirk or Qo]OTS, yet for some reason we’ve stopped playing ‘our way’ against them.
Aberdeen are better than them though. They are quick on the break, and have players who are mobile and skillful. If we don’t improve our performance we’ll lose, it’s as simple as that. Despite his poor early season form I feel it’s time Waghorn returned to the side. We’ve missed his movement and running with the ball. McKay too, even playing poorly he creates chances for others. Hodson must be getting considered for right back, Tavernier can be a joy to watch, but defensively he’s not performing currently. Dodoo, with an assist at Dundee, two goals at Thistle and one against Hearts that looked fine to me should retain his place. Most importantly our work rate needs to rise. Hard work will compensate for many other failings and it really feels like we’re simply not working hard enough currently.
Perhaps Aberdeen are the perfect opponents on Saturday. Rangers v Aberdeen is still a big match, third against fourth, a big crowd and a 3pm Saturday kick-off. If nothing else there should be some noise about the old place. If we can’t raise our game for Aberdeen at home then our problems go much deeper than simple loss of form.
Aberdeen at Ibrox should be one of the highlights of our season, a fixture we all look forward too, a challenge and an opportunity to benchmark our side.
Castro’s first meeting with Ali didn’t go all that well. Castro was late and Ali was tired. Ali didn’t try and hide his annoyance at his hosts tardiness either, the greatest boxer of all time wasn’t used to being ignored. Castro’s English is poor and he spoke through an interpreter, Ali’s illness meant he struggled to reply and he depended on his wife to speak for him. Castro could easily speak for two hours holding a crowd in rapture but was surprisingly poor at making small talk. Despite this they were both able to express their respect for each other, Ali did a magic trick, making a handkerchief seemingly disappear, a trick he’d learned and used to break the ice in the past. Castro then praised Ali for standing up for his beliefs, opposing racism and for being brave enough to visit Cuba as an American citizen.
As the evening ended Ali’s wife invited Castro to stay at their home if he was ever visiting Michigan. Castro explained that much to his annoyance he wasn’t allowed to leave New York when he visited America to speak at the UN. This restriction angered him, but, he said with prescience, perhaps in the future as “times change”.
Times do indeed change. Scottish football is at its lowest ever ebb, the standard of play and interest from supporters has never been lower. Until our clubs put aside narrow self-interest there is no chance this will change either. Perhaps we can begin on Saturday by showing each other some mutual respect.
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