GLASGOW — In a city defined by the rivalry between its two biggest soccer clubs — Celtic and Rangers — there were no team colors evident Sunday night as fans filtered into a gloomy pub to watch Scotland play Germany in its first Euro 2016 qualifying game. There is, however, more than soccer to talk about at the moment.
Scotland is wound tight, waiting to uncoil itself next Thursday, the day the country will vote on whether it should be independent from Britain. The debate has generated the kind of tension and engagement usually reserved for soccer rivalries in Scotland, and in fact the country’s stadiums have become key battlegrounds for the Yes and No campaigns. And as is so often the case in Scotland, the Old Firm rivals Rangers and Celtic are dominating the outlook; to the surprise of no one, here they are, as with most things, on opposite sides.
Traditionally, Rangers is as British as afternoon tea or “Downton Abbey.” The club’s symbol is the Union Jack. It hosts an annual Armed Forces Day. It toasts the British monarch as an annual ritual before the first home game each year. A portrait of Queen Elizabeth II even hangs in the dressing room at Ibrox Stadium.
At a league game this month, a section of Rangers fans unfurled a large banner urging their fellow supporters to “Vote No.” Given the team’s history, preservation of the Union would appear, at least on the face of it, intertwined with the preservation of Rangers’ identity as a club.
“A lot of fans adopt that identity in a very tribal way,” said Alan Bissett, an editor of the book “Born Under a Union Flag,” whose contributors examine the bond between Rangers and Britain. “At surface level it seems to be the case that the majority of Rangers fans will be voting no. Those fans are using the vote as a way to express and hold on to their identity. They may feel that their identity is under threat if the Union falls apart.”
Celtic’s relationship to the independence debate is more complex. Sections of the club’s support identify with the Irish republican movement, making them — in simplified terms — prime independence advocates. But others are skeptical of the Scottish National Party and its leader, Alex Salmond, since the introduction of the Offensive Behavior act, which has restricted — at least in the view of some Celtic fans — the expression of the club’s Irish heritage.
And yet the Yes campaign has taken root among the Celtic fan base. The Radical Independence Campaign — a volunteer-led civilian organization supporting the break with Britain — has even used home games at Celtic Park to draw attention to its cause. At a recent league match against Dundee United, a contingent of around 1,000 Celtic fans held up Yes placards in the 18th minute, a symbolic nod to the date of the vote.
“We wanted to send out a message from Celtic Park, and nothing influences opinion like a football club,” said Tony Kenny, who helped coordinate the R.I.C. campaign at the stadium.
“At Celtic you have a lot of people who are anti-establishment and who have never been comfortable with the British identity. For us it’s fertile ground, with a lot of people who are ripe for being pro-independence. Our campaign has worked spectacularly. I’d be very surprised if 85 to 90 percent of Celtic fans aren’t voting for independence.”
In fact, a recent poll found that majorities of fans who support both Rangers and Celtic were likely to vote against independence. (It is not just Celtic and Rangers being used to amplify the campaigns; last month’s Edinburgh derby between Hearts and Hibernian was also targeted by the R.I.C., and the same poll found that in addition to the big clubs in Glasgow and Edinburgh, fans of Aberdeen, Dundee United, Inverness, Ross County, St. Johnstone and St. Mirren were most likely to vote no.)
With the outcome still in doubt with a week to go, and with financial markets hedging against a possible Yes victory, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, and other leading politicians visited Scotland this week to warn Scots about the consequences of the vote. But soccer still has a strong voice.
“There is an element in football which will jump on any bandwagon and convert it into what they think it is all about,” said the well-known announcer Archie Macpherson, the voice of Scottish soccer for about 30 years.
While active players have remained largely silent in the debate, on Saturday 16 renowned Scottish soccer figures, including Ally McCoist, Billy McNeill and David Moyes, declared their support for the No campaign by signing a joint statement calling on “every patriotic Scot to help maintain Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom which has served Scotland so well.” Even Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager and one of the country’s most recognizable sports figures, has made public his allegiance: He has donated to the Better Together campaign.
The return of league matches to stadiums across Scotland this weekend will give both sides a final chance to make their pitch. But soccer’s innate capacity for harnessing political demonstration has already had an effect.
“It’s about creating an atmosphere, and that’s what is happening at football grounds because there’s already an atmosphere there to latch on to,” Macpherson said. “They’ve used football fans for the vocal power they need.”
The New York Times