"Head buried in shame, Scotland captain Chris Paterson contemplates a 31-0 defeat by the French"; so read the caption to our front-page pictures last Monday.
The converse is equally true. Victory can make us swell with pride, even when our only contribution to it has been to will on the players as we sit in the stand or in front of a television set. A nation that achieves sporting success feels good about itself; a nation that fails to win matches, titles, or Olympic medals feels bad.
Of course both these sentences are ridiculous. It is not the nation that wins or loses, but its representative players or athletes. Nevertheless, ridiculous or not, the two sentences hold good.
Politicians recognise this. Why else, do you suppose, did Tony Blair invite the England rugby team to Downing Street when they won the World Cup? He wished to associate himself with their success, in the hope that some of the lustre would be shed on him too. Actually, politicians in the democracies were slow to cotton on to the importance of sport. The dictators did so much earlier. Hitler and Mussolini made sporting success a priority; it was evidence of national virility and vigour. The Communist regimes of the Soviet bloc went further. Sport in Eastern Europe became what Marx had called religion: the opium of the people. It was also a means of demonstrating the superiority of the Socialist system, of beating the Capitalist West.
Now we have caught up. We think in the same way. National self-confidence and sporting success are held to go hand-in-hand. In many of the obituaries of the former Scotland football manager Ally McLeod, there were references to the supposed link between the fiasco over which he presided in Argentina in the 1978 World Cup and the failure of a sufficient number of Scots to vote for Devolution in the referendum the following spring. Humiliation in Argentina had knocked the stuffing out of us. The novelist William McIlvanney recalls the wee Scot he found sighing over his drink and moaning, "can we no’ iver dae onything richt?" We had lost a football match; ergo, as a nation, we were no good, doomed to failure. No doubt it is absurd to make this equation. Nevertheless we make it.
Making it, we are for the moment depressed. In football and rugby, one defeat follows hard on the heels of another. In both sports, we no longer produce the players and have slid down, way down, the world rankings. In desperation we look for help: a German manager, an Australian coach, imported players with the accents of the Antipodes, even of Essex or Birmingham.
I said we had caught up. But, in truth, all we have caught up with is the mood or attributes that identifies national well-being and morale with sporting prowess. Our politicians give lip-service to the importance of sport, and are happy to be associated with our rare successes. But that’s all. They do very little about it. They mouth the words. But where is the money?
Every single national sporting organisation in Scotland is short of money. Every one is cash-starved. Every single one is either in debt or holding out the begging bowl. Other countries invest heavily in sporting facilities; we don’t. Our Australian rugby coach, Matt Williams, works on a budget several times that available to his English counterpart, Clive Woodward. He has remarked that 20 years ago the Australian national team struggled to win 50 per cent of their games; now they win more than 70 per cent, have twice won the World Cup and were finalists again last November. "The genes," he says wryly, "are the same". So what’s the difference? Money. Australia has invested heavily in sporting success, and obtained it. We haven’t, and the result is all too evident. John Jeffrey, who manages our under-21 team, makes the point. His team competes against English and French teams composed of young, full-time professionals. There are two such in his side. The city of Toulouse spends more on rugby there than the Scottish Executive and local authorities together do here. That’s one sport. I mention it because it’s the one I know best. but the pattern is the same for all of them.
What do we do instead of investing? We allow councils to sell off playing-fields, that’s what. It is ludicrous, and, if we are going to introduce the concept of shame into a sporting context, this really is something to be ashamed of. Our politicians prattle about the benefits of sport to the nation’s health, and the desirability of sporting success - and they sell off playing-fields, and close swimming-pools as a measure of economy. Employment in the Leisure and Recreation Departments of local authorities rises, and sporting facilities are closed. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.
Now it may well be that we pay too much attention to sport, and that it is silly to identify the well-being of the nation with sporting success. That is certainly a defensive proposition. But the fact is that such identification has been made ever since organised sport emerged in the 19th century. It happens, and perhaps happened first, at a local level. People feel good when the home team does well; witness the number who will turn out to watch and cheer the triumphant procession through the streets of a cup-winning team. Sporting success boosts morale, from schooldays onward.
For years, Scotland did comparatively well in the two major team-sports, football and rugby, partly because we got in early in the sports’ development. This enabled us to overcome natural disadvantages: a small population, a disagreeable if not actively hostile climate. But these days have long gone. Other countries have not only caught up, but left us far behind. If we are not to sink further - to reach the point when it is a triumph for our footballers to beat the likes of Estonia and our rugby players to overcome the might of Romania or Georgia, then we must for the first time ever invest seriously in sport. For a small country it’s not enough for facilities to be almost as good as those of the likes of England, France and Australia: they must be of a higher quality.
Sporting success and investment are inextricably linked. You can’t, except on the odd occasion, achieve the first without the second. There is abundant evidence of this. If we lived in a low taxation country that investment might come from private sources. But we don’t. So public money is needed to build, and run, for example, facilities comparable to those financed by the French government at Clairefontaine.
If the politicians are not prepared to do this, then at least let them dissociate themselves from sport entirely, and not seek reflected glory from the very rare - and in the circumstances remarkable - sporting successes we manage against all the odds.
Jack McConnell should convene a meeting of all national coaches, find out what they need, and budget to meet their shopping-list. Given the Executive’s inability to spend all it gets from the Treasury, this shouldn’t be too difficult.
Until there is such investment, we should be clear about one thing. There’s nothing surprising in seeing our teams lose.
The real surprise is when they win - because every victory has been achieved against the odds, competing against countries whose teams have benefited from the sort of investment in facilities and preparation that our players can at present only dream about - and envy.