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No Lack of Support for Celtic

May 21, 2003|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

An estimated 50,000 Scots have abandoned the highlands and lowlands in favor of the warm lands, having made their way by air, sea and road to Seville, Spain, for tonight's UEFA Cup final between Celtic and FC Porto of Portugal.

As Tuesday's edition of Spain's El Correo de Andalucia newspaper put it: "The invasion has begun."

At the forefront of this tartan army, not surprisingly, is singer and soccer fan Rod Stewart, who is reported to have splashed out more than $70,000 to take a group of friends to see the game, hoping that tonight's the night that Celtic can end a 36-year barren spell in European competition.

Another rabid fan, Jim McQuillan, a 34-year-old office worker, bought an around-the-world air ticket to travel from Australia just to see Celtic.

"It was the cheapest way to go," he said.

The Glasgow club last won a European title in 1967, when, under legendary Coach Jock Stein, it defeated Inter Milan, 2-1, in Lisbon to become the first British club to win the European Cup.

A victory tonight would make Celtic the first Scottish team to win the UEFA Cup.

As usual, it will rely heavily on Swedish striker Henrik Larsson to provide the goals.

Larsson has been among Europe's top scorers for several years and is poised to notch his 200th goal for Coach Martin O'Neill's team.

"We're well aware of the history of this club," the Irish-born O'Neill said. "But you embrace history. You don't need to be frightened of it.... We've reached the final with gifted players and a tremendous spirit that was typical of the 1967 winning team."

The Porto Angle

Portuguese fans have not been tardy in crossing the Spanish border either, and an estimated 30,000 are in Seville to cheer FC Porto in its first European final since 1987, when it defeated Bayern Munich, 2-1, in Vienna to win the European Cup.

Porto's hopes revolve around Brazilian-born playmaker Deco and goalkeeper Vitor Baia. The duo already has helped the club clinch its 19th Portuguese championship this season. Coach Jose Mourinho's team also is in the Portuguese Cup final.

No Portuguese club has ever won the UEFA Cup, making tonight's final historic for both teams.

"I think the Spanish, Italian, English [and] German clubs are used to getting to finals," Mourinho said, "but when our teams get there, we must do everything to boost the credibility of our countries.

"Scottish teams fight till the end, they never give up. And we don't know how to play defensively. Seville could be [in for] a fantastic final."

V for Victory?

One odd statistic produced by this season's UEFA Cup has been the link between Celtic's six opponents on its the way to the final. They were FK Suduva of Lithuania, Blackburn Rovers of England, Celta Vigo of Spain, VfB Stuttgart of Germany, Liverpool of England, and Boavista of Portugal.

Every one of those teams has a V in its name. FC Porto does not, which might be an omen.

Porto's road to the final, incidentally was sign-posted by victories over Polonia Warsaw of Poland, Austria Vienna of Austria, FC Lens of France, Denizlispor of Turkey, Panathinaikos of Greece and Lazio of Italy.

The two finalists employ contrasting styles.

"Celtic play with heart, enthusiasm, aggressiveness and passion," Mourinho said. "We like to hold onto the ball and show off our skills."

Cleveland Connection

The winner of tonight's game will play the winner of next week's European Cup final between AC Milan and Juventus in the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco on Aug. 29.

If Celtic and AC Milan prove to be the two winners, that Super Cup will be previewed in, of all places, Cleveland, on July 25, when the teams meet at Cleveland Browns Stadium as part of the ChampionsWorld Series.

Times wire services contributed to this report.

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