Great Scots on a mission

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:29 AM ET

They are every bit as big, perhaps moreso, in Scotland as the New York Yankees are on this continent.

Glasgow Rangers won the Scottish League of football for the 51st time this past season, a staggering achievement. The aforementioned Yankees only can dream of such domination, having won 26 World Series, by far the most of any club in baseball history.

With the opening of the Scottish League scheduled for July 31, Rangers have retreated from the international football spotlight for a 10-day trip to Toronto, where they hope to lay the foundation for yet another championship side.

They'll be conducting two-a-days at the University of Toronto all week. Their stay here will be capped by a game against Dinamo Zagreb, a perennial Croatian powerhouse, next Tuesday at the Rogers Centre.

Accustomed to the plush surroundings of their own modern training facility they are, in a way, roughing it at U of T. The pitch is a bit uneven but Scottish manager Alex McLeish is not concerned.

"The facilities are fine," he said. "The training pitch is okay. We have a fantastic facility at Murray Park (in Glasgow) which is world class, but I've heard no complaints."

Of greater importance for McLeish is the opportunity for the team to come together outside the fishbowl existence back in Scotland. There are a handful of new faces on this year's team, with perhaps more to come.

FOCUS ON FOOTBALL

"It gives us a bit of respite for the players who can focus only on football," McLeish said. "It's nice for the players to get away into different surroundings, especially as a team. That's where team spirit and bonding becomes part of the overall picture.

"The focus is supreme. We look back on last year's championship, but at Rangers it never stops so they know they can't afford to let up or they won't be on the team. Here, there are no sideshows. The players know they're back to work. The next 10 days are going to be very physical, all geared toward preparing us for a new season."

Rangers have added Brahim Hemdani, a Tunisian and former Marseille captain, and Ian Murray from Hibernian.

There is some concern that Sotirios Kyrgiakos, on loan from a Greek team last year, will not be returning at centre-back. To protect themselves, Rangers are negotiating with Jose-Karl Pierre-Fanfan of Paris St. Germain.

From time to time there is talk of both Rangers and their rival, Celtic, moving to the higher-profile English Premiership. But McLeish isn't holding his breath on that one.

"At the moment, it seems a bit of a pipedream. But I guess it will be dictated by the television people. I'm sure that the guy who's putting millions and millions of pounds into football through the television, if he says he wants Rangers and Celtic to come into the English League, I believe that's when it could happen.

MASSIVE CLUBS

"We would like to be in the top league in the world, and that's no disrespect to the rest of the Scottish League, but Rangers and Celtic are massive, massive clubs and we don't get the notice that clubs like ours should."

A handful of the many Rangers supporters in the Toronto area were on hand at the team's first workout yesterday. Many thousands more are expected to be in the seats at Rogers Centre next Tuesday. McLeish expects Zagreb to be a first-class tuneup for the start of the season. He's well aware that expectations are high back at home.

"Two seasons ago, we drew the first game of the season away from home and, according to the critics, the league was finished with only 37 games to go," he said. "Of course, we won it that year. But that's how the mass hysteria can get things out of perspective at Rangers. That's why you can't let yourself get sidetracked. We're all business here."

Sidetracked? A couple of dozen young professional athletes in the heart of Yorkville on warm summer nights? If they're focused enough to resist the local, ah, culture, then a 52nd championship is in the bag.


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