“HOLA, mi amigo!” The common Spanish greeting is instantly recognisable but stands out among the local accent when spoken in a pub in Glasgow city centre.
The speaker is Gonzalo Bernal Belarra, or ‘Gonso’, who has been dubbed Celtic’s most famous Spanish fan. I have known Gonso for three years since meeting him in Hamburg for St Pauli’s anniversary match against Celtic, while for several years he has also been an occasional visitor to my local CSC, the Hayes Bhoys, some of whose members met Gonso during stints working in Spain.
When we meet, it’s a few hours ahead of Celtic’s Champions League last-16 first leg game with Juventus. I’m tired after a 4am start that morning but my journey was a stroll in the park compared to Gonso’s. For he isn’t a Spanish ex-pat in Glasgow who has started supporting the local team, but travels over from his home in the province of Huesca in north-eastern Spain to watch the Hoops.
Whereas next week Celtic fans will traverse the continent in the hope of seeing Neil Lennon’s side overturn a 3-0 deficit in Turin in what will be our sixth European away tie this season, Gonso makes a similar trip every time he wants to see his beloved Hoops at home.
“Minimum, I come to see Celtic once a month,” he says. It may not sound like a lot but it’s a 2,500-mile round trip, sometimes to spend only a few hours in Glasgow for the game before making the return leg of his journey. His trip for the Juventus game is a typical example. Setting off at midnight on Sunday night from Huesca, he drove four hours to Madrid. From there he caught a 6am flight to London where, after a five-hour layover, he caught a second flight to Glasgow, arriving in the city late on Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile his Celtic-supporting Swiss friends who join us tell me they had a similarly arduous journey, arriving in Glasgow the night before via Edinburgh, while another friend from Germany, Patrick, flew into Gatwick and had to quickly make his way to Heathrow for a flight to Glasgow. What was that Paddy Crerand said recently about Celtic not being a global brand? These are people from around the globe (we met one person from Texas over for the game) who love the club because of what it stands for, not people jumping on a footballing bandwagon because a club has won the most trophies or because it has a marketing and advertising campaign the Far East.
Despite his competent English and the fact we’ve been chatting away for 20 minutes, Gonso tells me that one of his Swiss friends, Steph, is here to act as a translator as he didn’t think his English would be up to scratch for an interview. It’s a typical sign of modesty from the friendly, unassuming and always smiling gentle giant, and it is little wonder Celtic fans have taken him so readily to their hearts. The club itself even recorded an interview with the dedicated fan for Celtic TV, but by that stage the Spanaird (and his massive ‘Gonso on Tour’ Irish Tricolour) were already a common sight at home and away games.
Talking about how the game against Juve will go, Gonso’s knowledge of and love for Celtic is plain to see. But how does someone living in a small town in the shadow of the Pyrenees end up supporting Celtic, especially when the mighty Barcelona, arguably the world’s greatest side, are just a relative stone’s throw away 200 miles down the road?
“Everybody in the world knows Celtic,” he says. “I was always interested in Celtic and thought it could be the team for me and always wanted to watch them play.
“My first Celtic match was in Lisbon in Portugal seven years ago and it was special. I remember I drove 1,000km in my car, only to see Celtic. I went alone but after the game I had many friends.”
That circle of friends within the Celtic family continues to grow. He is never short of places to lay his head in Glasgow after his tiring trips from Spain and it is the welcoming support of the fans that he loves. If ever an individual epitomised the Celtic mission statement of being a club for everyone that promotes integration, it is Gonso.
“I love the supporters and the club,” he says. “Coming to Glasgow is like coming home. Now I have a Celtic season ticket, I go to Celtic Park, I see my friends, and for me now Celtic is the most important thing in my life.”
Like everyone leaving Celtic Park after the Juve game, Gonso was disappointed with the result but unlike most fans, faced the prospect of mulling over the defeat during a draining and lonely 15-plus-hour journey home to Spain. However he wasn’t disappointed with the performance and the experience, and is already looking ahead to the slightly easier trip to Italy for the return leg.
“It was exciting at Celtic Park, people singing, shouting, the music of the Champions League… they are special matches.
“We were unlucky that Juve scored a goal so soon but despite this I enjoyed seeing the team attack. Until the second Italian goal we had had 10 shots on target, but no luck with the goal… and the referee. It is better not to mention him… embarrassing. You finish the game, you’ve seen it, and can’t understand how the result has been 3-0.
“I was a little sad, but still wanting to go to Turin to support my team, again…”
Once again, Gonso will be going the the extra mile.
• Gonso on Tour, a short film following Gonso on one of his trips to Glasgow, can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/23840272