Carnival time as Bhoys invade Seville

CLOSE to a graceful bend on the Guadalquivir river, a heartbeat from Seville’s broad palm-lined boulevards, Joe McBride and fellow members of the Bellshill Celtic Supporters Club were contemplating a late afternoon dip.

Fuelled by the remnants of a traditional Spanish "carry-oot" - cheap Sangria and Tinto De la Casa - they were cheered on by more than 100 well-refreshed Scots as they scrambled down the bank and dipped their toes in the filthy water. Declining the opportunity to jump into the murky depths, they decided instead to go for an altogether cleaner dip in the fountain in the Plaza de Cuba.

In the fountain, it was standing room only - to the bewilderment of the locals, a dozen fans had already taken up residence in the water.

The peacock grandeur and strutting extravagance of Seville makes it an unlikely destination for Celtic’s travelling army.

With its elegant terraces soaked in bougainvillea and its squares drenched in the smell of citrus, Seville’s distance from the costas has deterred generations of Scots travellers from making the pilgrimage to the Andalusian capital.

Yesterday afternoon, the fans remained good natured, although one Celtic supporter suffered what were believed to be superficial stab wounds following an incident in the city centre. A second fan was arrested in connection with the incident and was in the custody of Spanish police. Reports said the incident happened at an Irish bar popular with visiting football fans. Earlier, opponents Porto suffered a tragedy when a supporter drowned after falling into a river.

At the heart of this grand city, oblivious to the seething heat and their fast-reddening skin, thousands of Scots fans have set up their base camp in the shadow of the Giraldo tower that crowns the magnificent Gothic cathedral - "handy for confession," according to Glaswegian Peter Tierney, 27, one of an estimated 50,000 Celtic supporters expected to descend on southern Spain.

He said: "We came up from Malaga last night, hitch-hiked all the way in the back of a freight truck.

"I think the only reason the driver stopped was because we were wearing kilts and in the dark we must have looked like women. He certainly got a surprise when three burly Scots jumped in his cab."

He added: "I’m amazed at the turnout. I’ve met almost half of the guys I went to school with and two of my old teachers. My brothers are here somewhere too and even my mum is coming out tomorrow."

The first culture shock for the Scots who made the trip here is clearly the languorous pace of life in Seville. Everything in this drowsy corner of Spain is done slowly, including making small green grapes into the wine we mistakenly call sherry and equally mistakenly drink sweet and warm.

Not much sherry is being tippled, however, according to the owner of Flahertys - the Irish bar and the closest hostelry to the cathedral’s confessional chamber. The pub has already run out of Guinness, forcing the owner to ship in emergency supplies of the black stuff from Cordoba, Malaga and Cadiz.

To the astonishment of the locals, who like an occasional glass of Rioja, the mass "importation" of Buckfast tonic wine from Scotland is also causing some consternation. "You throw some fruit in it and it tastes just like Sangria," said Mr Tierney.

Today, fans are expected to descend on the city from Glasgow, Dublin, London and airports all over Europe as the UEFA Cup build-up reaches fever pitch.

Seventy-five miles south of Seville, in the port of Cadiz, a city that has altered little in the flurry of modernisation since Franco, thousands more Celtic fans are understood to have set up camp with the intention of travelling to the game in an ordered procession of hired mopeds - although supporters planning to travel along the Autovia de Andalusia highway may get a shock with the Spanish police promising to halt any such processions that obstruct traffic in the city.

Twelve miles from Seville, in Carmona, a classic white Andalusian town famed for its Moorish Alcazar, the bewildered locals are receiving the arrival of dozens of members of the Donegal Celtic Supporters Club, bedecked in green and white Elvis suits, with slight reservation. According to Keith Price, an English ex-pat, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and tourists have all left their mark on Carmona, but nothing has prepared the locals for the invasion of hundreds of football fans.

He said: "The impact of these fans on a big city like Seville is huge but in small towns like Carmona, they aren’t exactly used to crazy Celtic fans in green and white Elvis suits. I think many here will be relieved when they return home. They have turned drinking in the town square into an art form, the local publicans are rubbing their hands with glee."

More than 300 fake tickets for the match have been seized and thousands more could be in circulation. According to Strathclyde Police Superintendent Tim Love, in Seville, the problem of forged briefs is the biggest concern for the authorities.

He said: "Our intelligence leads us to believe that there are at least 700 fake tickets out there but there could be many more. It’s a serious safety concern and one we could well do without especially considering the magnitude of the game and the sheer number of travelling fans."

In Seville, tickets continued to change hands for up to 500 as fans scrambled to get a treasured seat in the Stadio Olimpico.

In Spain, the club has reached celebrity status, featuring in a television documentary and in the press during Celtic’s European run.

Feargal McGuire, a member of the Madrid Celtic Supporters Club, said "Given the number of fans popping into our headquarters, I have no doubt this will be one of the biggest events in sporting history and we will be at the heart of it."

Supporters are also anticipating the arrival of a host of celebrity fans, including Billy Connolly, Rod Stewart and members of the band Westlife.