STRANGE but true: I got an e-mail from a football fan in Brazil this week saying how much he loved the Scottish game. No, not the Brazil in Fife, the South American one.
At first I was sure the glowing testimony was a wind-up, and that if I mentioned it on these pages it would end up my Hitler Diaries, my biggest clanger as a hack, bigger even than that unfortunate business with Jim Bowen and the saxophone. (A few years ago I gleefully reported as fact that the sax solo on Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street was played by the popular game-show host. Tragically for me, this turned out to be an urban myth - and about Bob Holness).
Anyway, I thought I’d better check that Alexandre Gontijo was for real, so I compiled a quiz to test him on his knowledge of football, Scottish-style.
First question: what colour were Jim Holton’s eyes?
"This player I know!" came the reply from Rio way. "He was Scotish [sic] at time of World Cup ’74 - Scotish 0, Brazil 0."
There was no mention of Big Jim’s blue peepers, though, and I feared something was being lost in translation when, in his next answer, Alexandre told me he’d just had lunch. The question was: who was the hardest, Kenny Burns Unit or Tam "The Scythe"?
Was the quiz too hard? Perhaps. So I asked Alexandre who he wanted to see become the next coach of Scotishland and got this response: "If I was someone in the Scotish FA, I will choose George Graham because he always does his homeworks. I love SFA very good, even though some friends of mine make monkey of the situation."
OK, Alexandre, answer me this: are you insane? You’re a Brazilian, your national team may have made a monkey of qualifying for next year’s World Cup, but football in your country must still be the beautiful game compared to what goes on at East End Park. What has Gus MacPherson got that Rivaldo hasn’t?
I didn’t hear from my new friend for ages after that and feared I must have offended him. Then I got to thinking: so Alexandre loves our football, but maybe that isn’t as improbable as a Frenchman drooling over Scottish haute cuisine. Maybe we’re just too close to the game here and it isn’t as bad as we think.
Certainly, the game in England isn’t as good as some people thought just before 7.45pm on Tuesday. At that precise moment, the commentator at the Liverpool-Barcelona match was displaying all the pumped-up certainty that your correspondent once did over Jim Bowen. It was the Premiership v La Liga, the two best leagues in the world, forget Serie A, no doubt about it, Ron.
Ninety minutes later, The Beatles, Jimmy Tarbuck, Derek Hatton, Our Cilla, Barry from Brookie, their boys had taken a helluva beating. It was a footballing lesson, maybe not one to rank alongside England 3, Hungary 6, but it has provoked a fair bit of soul-searching about the way football should be played.
BARCELONA’S final goal was the result of 27 passes, five of which came from the boot of Rivaldo, or "Il MacPhersono" as he’s known down the Copacabana. Before the throw-in that began the move, the cultured Catalans had strung together 31 passes without a Scally scamp getting so much as a sniff of the ball. By the end, the Liverpool players were signing up for a reaquaintance course, to remind themselves what the round, white thing looked like.
Barca’s passing game was fantastic, and delivered a short, sharp shock to the whole Premiership. "Running is for cowards," said their coach Carles Rexach. "People always say you have to run more than the opposition. That really annoys me. It’s about better football."
It’s not just at Liverpool that the players scarper around like they’re being chased by the bizzies on hubcap patrol. Throughout the Premiership and the SPL, despite the massive foreign influence, this is pretty much the norm.
Running is a core strength and the punters wouldn’t have it any other way. Despite the superior technique on display, Italian league games on Channel 4 have become a turn-off for many because the tempo is too slow. A couple of my mates even thought Barcelona the other night were "boring".
There’s no pleasing some people. Alexandre, for instance, can watch football played to a sultry samba rhythm in his own backyard, and yet he’s strangely hypnotised by flickering pictures of kick-and-rush from far-off Scotishland.
He got back in touch, by the way. "Your football is crazy, boring and lovely, yes?" There’s no answer to that.