The thought of playing in the Champions League would have been unimaginable for the players and supporters of Scottish soccer giant Rangers 10 years ago while they were making trips to obscure, far-flung corners of the nation as something of a pariah club.
Crippled by a financial crisis brought on by its ownership’s reckless mismanagement, Rangers plunged into bankruptcy protection — and ultimately out of business — midway through 2012 and, humiliatingly, was having to start afresh at the bottom of Scotland’s soccer pyramid.
To say it was an eye-opener for one of the biggest and most storied clubs in the European game would be an understatement.
“It was like we were playing games at a high school or college, on fields like that,” said Carlos Bocanegra, a former U.S. international who was part of Rangers’ team during those turbulent times in 2012. “Some of the changing rooms were super old, quaint.
“But everywhere we went, our fans still travelled — it was amazing — and the opposing teams were very welcoming. I remember a lady bringing pies over to us after the game. It was surreal in that sense, playing Scottish Premier League and Champions League qualifiers (one season) and then this different experience.”
It has been quite the ride but Rangers is back where many feel the team belongs.
On Wednesday, the Glasgow club makes its first appearance in the Champions League since 2010 when it takes on Ajax in Amsterdam, completing a bruising journey from the depths of the Scottish game to the summit of European soccer.
“Knowing how massive the club is and how ingrained in the culture it is,” Bocanegra told The Associated Press in a telephone interview, “it’s really cool to see them back, flourishing.”
Now the vice president and technical director of MLS team Atlanta United, Bocanegra — a 64-time captain of the United States — has watched the rise of Rangers from afar after leaving the team a few weeks into its first season as an asset-stripped new company.
Rangers comfortably managed back-to-back promotions in 2013 and 2014 with an unrecognizable group of players compared to its 1990s heyday, when stars like Paul Gascoigne and Brian Laudrup were attracted to the west side of Glasgow and the club came within one victory of reaching the first final of the Champions League era (1993).
It took two years to get out of the second division and back into the Scottish Premiership, where Rangers was reunited with its fierce cross-city rival Celtic, which had capitalized on the downfall of its neighbor by winning every Scottish league title since.
And Celtic would continue to do so until 2021 when Rangers, under the stewardship of former Liverpool and England star Steven Gerrard, denied its rival a 10th straight title by becoming champion for a record-extending 55th time. Or for the first time, if — as some opponents put forth provocatively — this version of Rangers is to be regarded a completely new club.
Then came Rangers’ revival in European competition by reaching the final of last season’s Europa League, where the team now coached by former Netherlands international Giovanni van Bronckhorst lost to Eintracht Frankfurt in a penalty shootout.
Bocanegra watched that final in a bar in Atlanta with his son, who donned one of his father’s old Rangers jerseys to mark the occasion, and some locally based Rangers supporters. Bocanegra said he spent time during the match filling in his son about Rangers’ “amazing history,” which invariably stands out because of a fierce rivalry with Celtic that comprises a volatile mix of sport, politics and religion often resulting in fan clashes and violence.
This season, in a way, they are combining for a common cause.
For the first time since 2007, both Celtic and Rangers are in the group stage of the Champions League — Celtic as Scottish champion and Rangers after coming through two qualifying rounds, against Union Saint-Gilloise and PSV Eindhoven.
While Celtic was drawn in the same group as defending champion Real Madrid, Rangers was pitted in an eye-catching group containing Ajax, Liverpool and Napoli.
For those close to Rangers, these are still pinch-yourself moments.
“I certainly wouldn’t have thought, with my most rose-tinted glasses, that we could possibly ever have seen Rangers on its own — from where we were — carry Scotland forward into this position where we could get into the group stages,” former Rangers chairman Dave King told Scotland’s Daily Record newspaper.
“This,” he added, “is about Rangers dragging Scottish football up and itself up at the same time. It is not as if we were equipped to do what we did.”
Indeed, Rangers’ 4-0 loss to Celtic on Saturday in the first Old Firm derby of the season highlighted that the team still has plenty to do to regain its luster of old. The widespread expectation is Rangers will finish last in its Champions League group, given the quality of its opponents.
But that will not stop Rangers fans flocking to games, home and away, to cheer their team on in Europe after everything they've gone through.
“The community and the club was punished for one individual or a couple of individuals,” Bocanegra said. “The conversation was like, does this set Scottish football back 10 years? So ... to see Rangers back is great.”
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press