TEAMS of disparate nationalities with a shared goal, competing on a Selkirk forest pitch – it can only be a further example of the power of the beautiful game.
Nemat Razaie was only a boy when he fled his home in strife-torn Afghanistan. Forced to leave his family behind, he arrived in Scotland alone and terrified in 2009. Although he was given shelter in a children’s home in Glasgow, everything was a challenge. He had never been to school before, so he could not read or write in his native language, never mind English. It was football, he says, that saved him. Although he had never kicked a ball before, he became obsessed by the sport after seeing an Arsenal match on television, and was soon playing for a Glasgow team.
“When I played with that team it was all Scottish people, but they were good to me, they taught me how to play and helped me with my English. It made me feel at home in my new country,” he says.
Taken in by a Scottish family, Nemat now lives in West Dunbartonshire. He is studying at college, plays for Glasgow Afghan United and hopes to become both a mechanic and a British citizen. However, he has also become involved with artist Craig Coulthard’s ambitious Cultural Olympiad commission, a full-sized football pitch created in the thick of a forest in the Scottish Borders.
On Saturday, the 18-year-old, along with 59 other immigrants, will travel to Selkirk to take part in one of two games on Coulthard’s very own field of dreams. The event, scheduled to coincide with the run-up to the Olympic football tournament’s kick-off, on 25 July, is conceived as a living artwork; an interactive exploration of football and cultural identity and how the two so often intertwine.
Inspired by the controversy over the creation of a GB team and the questions of allegiance it raised, and given extra momentum by the forthcoming independence referendum, Coulthard’s project asks what factors shape our nationality. In order to be Scottish does a person have to be born here, have Scottish antecedents or have acquired British citizenship? Or is it enough simply to feel and declare oneself Scottish?
That Coulthard should be fascinated by such issues is hardly surprising; the son of an RAF serviceman, he spent much of his young childhood on a base in Germany, playing football with the locals on a forest-based pitch very much like the one he is creating (see panel, right).
Although his dad occasionally wore a kilt, there was little to distinguish Coulthard as Scottish. Mingling mostly with English expats, he spoke with a neutral accent, so even when he went back to visit relatives, he was something of an outsider.
It was only when it came to football, and particularly World Cup tournaments, that he fully embraced his national identity. “Football can give you a way to shout out where you are from,” Coulthard says.
“If you are in another country, it becomes a way to connect with your home. When I am on holiday, if there’s a Scotland match on, I always go to a bar and watch it – and I’ll be more aware of being Scottish when I do.”
Of course, in this country, particularly in Glasgow, where the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers has all-but dominated, football is often seen as divisive. But at its best it can widen cultural horizons. You only have to think of children sorting through their Panini stickers or looking on a globe to locate the countries their team are playing to see that it can encourage more of a sense of global citizenship.
And, as with Nemat, it can help people from very different backgrounds integrate. “On a football pitch it’s easier to communicate. Your personality is evident when you are playing football without necessarily talking – it can negate the need for language,” says Coulthard.
This is certainly the experience of Mohsen Gomroki, 33, a former architect’s assistant and another member of Coulthard’s Forest Pitch teams. Having fled Iran in a lorry, he pitched up in Scotland by accident – he had planned to go to the US. The only thing he knew about the country was the existence of Celtic and Rangers.
Mohsen’s integration into Scottish life came principally through religion. After losing his faith in Islam, he converted to Christianity and, having been baptised in the chill waters of Loch Lomond, is now a regular churchgoer. But his passion for football has helped too. “Playing is great because it changes the way you feel,” he says. “For example, I still think Scottish people are different, but when I meet them on a football pitch I feel, ‘No, we are one team and we are all helping together’.’”
Fermin Beltran, 34, who is half-Peruvian and half-Paraguayan, but nevertheless has a Scots twang, has an even more complicated cultural heritage. Born in Venezuela, he moved to Peru (where he instantly felt at home) and then to Texas (where he didn’t). After graduating as an architect, he went on to New York to work; but when he met his wife, Lucy, a Scot, he crossed the Atlantic to settle on the east coast, where the couple now run their own practice, Fife Architects.
Moving was a risk – he had not visited the country before – but he says he feels more at home here than anywhere he has lived previously. “I see a lot of similarities in the identity of the two countries [Scotland and Peru]. We realise we are not superpowers. We have our natural beauty, our culture, our food, but we wear it lightly. We know we’re not really contenders. And Scotland met Peru in the World Cup in 1978, so that’s always something to talk about,” he laughs.
Having played football all his life, Fermin was eager to sign up for the Forest Pitch project. “I liked the idea of using football as a platform for art; and playing in a forest sounds really cool,” he says.
Also attracted to the mix of football, art and ecology, Allison Gibbs owes her place in the team to her own, very different, cultural journey.
Originally from Australia, her interest in Scotland was kindled by her grandfather, William, who was born into a mining family in Falkirk, but emigrated down under after meeting her grandmother there while on leave from the Royal Navy during the Second World War. As a child, she listened to his stories of hardship and enjoyed Hogmanays when he would drink his whisky and listen to Scottish records. It was some time, however, before she discovered that, when her grandfather finally decided to move permanently to the country to be with his sweetheart, he left a wife and three sons back at home.
Fascinated, she got in touch with her Scottish relatives, meeting her half-cousin, also called William, when he visited Australia. In 2007, she moved to Glasgow to study for a master’s degree at the city’s school of art. Now a sculptor and film-maker, she lives near William and is in the process of gaining permanent residency.
Coulthard’s desire to bring together people from such diverse backgrounds stemmed from reflecting on Team GB which, at one point, seemed as if it might be made up of purely English players: “I started to think about the people who lived in Scotland and thought it would be interesting to have people who didn’t originate here playing in parallel to the actual games.”.
It has taught him that identity is a more fluid concept than he had imagined. “I once bought a painting of Mount Rushmore by a Glaswegian woman with autism who had decided she was American. She spoke in an American accent, all her paintings were of iconic American images, yet she’d never left Scotland – and you can’t really argue with that,” he says. “I don’t see the harm in choosing your own national identity.”
It has also made Coulthard think about the way the independence debate often pigeonholes people: “[There’s a sense that] if you think one thing you are this or you are not this – but life’s a lot more complicated than that.”
The Forest Pitch project is an antidote to such narrow cultural profiling. It is a celebration of the very many ways in which it is possible to be Scottish.
HOW THE FOREST PITCH GAMES WILL WORK
l ON 21 July, two 90-minute games will be played on the full-sized pitch created in the middle of a commercial plantation of spruce trees on the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate at Clarilawmuir by Selkirk.
l The teams – two male and two female – will be made up of recent British citizens or those with leave to remain in Scotland.
l Watched by 1,000 on-site spectators and followed online via a live internet broadcast, the players will wear colourful team strips designed by Scottish schoolchildren.
l There will be musical performances before and after the games.
l As the project is about sustainability as well as identity, trees felled to make space for the pitch are being used to create the goalposts, benches and a changing room.
l After match day, the pitch will be planted with native trees where the markings once were, creating “an evolving, living sculpture”. The site will be freely accessible to the public for up to 60 years.
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