Football caused Scotland's Covid spike and remains an excuse for sectarianism, domestic violence and racism. How long will 'beautiful game' get a free pass? – Joyce McMillan

Only an Excuse, they called it, the annual Hogmanay sketch show celebrating the world of Scottish football that was broadcast every year, from 1993 to 2020.

Thousands of Scotland fans gathered in London's Leicester Square ahead of the England vs Scotland game at Wembley stadium (Picture: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)
Thousands of Scotland fans gathered in London's Leicester Square ahead of the England vs Scotland game at Wembley stadium (Picture: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

The title reflected the typical exasperation of many women – and some football-sceptical men – down the ages, as they observed their menfolk carrying on around football in a way they would never behave at any other time; and it was a great name for a football show, in its day.

Now, though, as the current European Championship approaches its climax, I am beginning to feel that football – however beautiful the game – is wearing pretty thin as an excuse for some of the ills it brings in its wake. Until a fortnight ago, for example, it was possible to say that the Scottish Government’s generally more cautious attitude to handling the Covid pandemic was paying dividends, compared to the situation in England – sometimes, in terms of cases prevented and lives saved, fairly substantial ones.

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Now, though, the picture has changed; for in the last two weeks, Scotland’s infection rate has shot upwards at alarming speed. Over the last ten days of June, more than 25,000 new cases were reported in Scotland almost three times as many as in the previous ten days; and on Wednesday, Scotland reported its highest daily number of new Covid cases ever, at 3,887 – 15 per cent of all the new cases in the UK that day, although Scotland represents only eight per cent of the population.

Nor is there any mystery about the principal reason for this frightening surge. It can be traced back, with an almost eerie precision, to the England-Scotland football match at Wembley, which took place on 18 June.

The numbers of cases began to climb steeply just three days later; and initially at least, the vast majority of them were in men aged between 18 and 45. Crowded pubs, crowded living-rooms, and the massively crowded trains and coaches that carried partying Scotland fans to London, seem to have been the main culprits in spreading the infection; and this week, it emerged that no fewer than 1,300 fans who travelled to London for the event have now tested positive for this ever more transmissible infection, with huge knock-on effects for their families, workplaces and communities.

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All of which raises profound questions about just why – at a time when so many other forms of entertainment are still struggling to operate under Draconian distancing rules – so much indulgence has been extended to football, which, despite being a high-contact physical sport, was allowed to restart operations as early June 2020.

Scotland fans wearing masks board a train at Glasgow's Central Station as they head to London (Picture: John Devlin)

Throughout the pandemic, football has been treated as more of an essential service than a form of entertainment, something without which the nation – and the world – could barely survive, psychologically and emotionally.

In Scotland, incident after incident has shown police indulging big gatherings of “celebrating” fans – sometimes with accompanying vandalism and criminal behaviour – at a time when smaller gatherings in better causes were being heavily restricted; and for the 50 per cent or so of the population who are not much bothered about football, this sense of special treatment has often been both baffling and infuriating.

Football exceptionalism during the pandemic, though, is arguably all of a piece with the indulgence shown to football in general, when it comes to the social harms associated with it.

Defeats in football matches, for example, are strongly associated with spikes in domestic violence across the UK, and elsewhere; yet the sport remains sacrosanct.

Similarly, tournaments like the current Euros are always accompanied by outbursts of ugly jingoism and tribal hostility between what one commentator this week called “old enemies”. In the age of Brexit, is it “only a game” when England fans boo the German team every time they get possession of the ball? In the age of Black Lives Matter, is it “only a game” when black players on opposing sides are subjected to constant racist taunts and comments?

And above all, for us in Scotland, is it “only a game” when the traditional rivalry between two Glasgow football teams becomes almost the sole remaining public focus for a toxic form of bigotry and anti-Irish racism that has no place in the Scotland of the 21st century, or anywhere else?

In every one of these instances, football acts as a pretext and a focus for forms of hate speech, tribalism, misogyny and racism that do real damage to real human beings every day; and that sadly, are not unconnected to some of the political movements and ideas that may determine all of our futures.

Football can also, of course, rouse itself to play a much more positive role in our collective life. Some teams – including the present England national team, under Gareth Southgate’s leadership – distinguish themselves through their strong public commitment to positive values of equality and mutual respect; and the game itself, at its best, remains breathtakingly fluent and beautiful, a magnificent arena for human achievement both individual and collective.

Yet the truth is that on far too many occasions, football as an industry, and football fans as a group, are given a free pass for behaviour that would be treated as unacceptable in any other context.

Scotland’s current huge Covid spike is just one example of a harm that could well have been prevented, if football had not been treated, yet again, as a special case.

And it strikes me that it is well past time for all the leaders of this mighty game – not only a commendable few – to begin to take some serious structural responsibility for reducing each of those harms, and challenging the attitudes among fans that lead to them; instead of continuing to offer up excuses that have never been good enough, and of which many weary citizens, outside the circle of the fitba’ daft, have now heard more than enough.

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