It’s childish and parochial to wish World Cup woe on our southern neighbours; we grown-ups should accept that, writes John McTernan
I share one thing with Alex Salmond – I’m a Jambo. More than almost anything else in life this is a true test of commitment. The brilliant and wise Brazilian captain Socrates once said: “Victory and defeat are the same thing, there’s always another match next week.” Well, philosophically that may be true, but it certainly didn’t feel like that when the Maroon Brazil were relegated this year. Even the relegation of Hibs couldn’t lighten my spirit.
The state of Scottish football is far from the days when the national team could qualify repeatedly for the World Cup. Or qualify “on merit” as we used to say to distinguish us from England who sneaked in in 1966 as hosts and then tricked their way back in 1970 by winning the Jules Rimet Trophy.
Where has it all gone wrong? I remember once talking to an SFA old-timer who observed: “It used to be that everywhere you went in Scotland you could see kids out in the streets kickin’ ba’s against wa’s. That’s what we need nowadays – more wa’s.” He had a point actually. Just as increasing prosperity eventually did for Scottish boxing, so it has – apparently – done for football.
On the one hand, kids have many more attractions – from PlayStation and smartphones to skiing and sailing. On the other, when a plumber or electrician earns more than an Edinburgh lawyer what should a young man on the make choose – football or a trade?
Of course, the biggest participation in sport in Scotland remains schoolkids and young men playing football. Which is great in one way, because sport and exercise is a habit best learnt young. And, as a global sport, a kick-about is one of the best ways to rapidly make friends in a foreign country.
On one visit to Washington, the park to go to on a Wednesday for a game was proudly pointed out to me by a Spanish colleague. But if you want to see just why Scottish football is struggling there is nothing more chastening than taking your sons or daughters to play primary school football.
It is there you watch players from eight to 11 being taught that what matters is strength not skill. The bigger, older – nearly a year older – muscle the smaller kids aside.
The only recourse the smaller kids have is to hack – not the beautiful but the brutal game.
Now, the SFA has some excellent initiatives investing in the grassroots of the game. For instance, the rise and rise of girls playing football is fantastic. But the fact is that we face another World Cup without Scotland present.
What are we to do? Or more pointedly, who should we support? This question famously tripped up Jack McConnell when as First Minister in 2006 he announced he would support anyone but England. This has, for some time, been the default position of a lot of Scottish football supporters.
But it is becoming increasingly out of date. For we are living in a period where it is not simply Scottish football that has got worse, English football – following the advent of the Premier League – has got so much better. And thanks to Sky Sports everyone is able to see so much more of it. Think about those primary school kids again, when they are playing football whose strips are they wearing?
It’s as likely to be Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United or Liverpool as it is to be a Scottish team. Is that a bad thing? For one thing, it is a highly visible sign that young Scots live in a Britain without borders – that very “social union” the First Minister so often celebrates.
For another, it does mean that they are watching high-quality football which in itself is much more likely to inspire them to take up the game seriously than watching a standard SPL game.
There’s more though. The generation of young people who have grown up since Sky revolutionised the televising of football are also the generation who have always had computers, mobile phones and the global connections that those create.
They not only support an English team, they also follow one in Italy, Spain and France. As global citizens they have abandoned the parochialism that, in the past, was like a dead hand on Scottish culture. Young Scots will be spoiled for choice as to who they support in Brazil – one in seven of the players there come from the Premier league.
But they will, I bet, be overwhelmingly backing England. Not for them the support of anyone against the English. They see that for what it is – a narrow and petty definition of identity. Instead, they are unafraid to celebrate the success of any of the nations of the United Kingdom. It is a lesson for us all.
Politicians have been slowly getting here. Henry McLeish was right on this in 2006 when he said he’d be supporting England. Alex Salmond took a little time to follow Henry’s lead, but in 2010 and again now in 2014 has openly declared for England. It’s taken time because it’s hard to shake a habit that has been hard-wired into you while you have been growing up.
But there is wisdom in youth that can, and should, challenge those of us who stake a claim to maturity. Scotland’s economic, political and cultural self-confidence should now be matched in football. Like Alex Salmond, I’ll be supporting England in Brazil. (Though I reckon that for both our sakes we should stop at sharing two things, otherwise it will all get far too complicated.) England is, as he says, Scotland’s closest neighbour and closest friend. Now it’s time for you to do the same. Go and get yourself a St George’s Cross. Display it proudly in your window or on your car. Repeat after me: “Scotland against England, but England against anyone else in the world.” See how good it feels? You’re feeling younger already.