Siol nan Gaidheal
Sport

  

ONLY A GAME?

"Football", as some Scots footballing exile in England once opined, "is not a matter of life and death, it is far more important than that". Given the Celtic penchant for hyperbole, one could almost, just almost, forgive oneself for seeing some humorous merit in such a throwaway statement. The sad and almost surreal truth however is that in a Scottish context at least it might just actually reflect reality.

There can indeed be few if any countries in the world where self-worth, national identity and sport are so inextricably linked as in this nation of 90, or if you're into rugby, 80 minute nationalists, shrieking their "undying love" for the fatherland one minute then skulking meekly back to the apron strings of the British mummyland the next.

Why has sport in general and football in particular become such a touchstone of how we see ourselves as a nation ? As cultural nationalists deriving legitimacy and inspiration from the fundamentals of ethnicity and native intellectual expression, it cannot be stressed enough how gravely we view developments in the way our uniqueness as a people is now correlative to a fatuous obsession with our anomalous status as a sporting nation.

The impending retrieval of what amounts to the butt-end of national sovereignty will scarcely alter the fact that for most Scots, national identity is couched in the reassuringly accessible yet fundamentally puerile terms of World Cup qualification, "We hate Jimmy Hill", Tartan Army "ambassadors" and "only an excuse". A sad excuse indeed for a nation. It is to our eternal shame on the one hand, yet politically significant on the other, that our sense of ourselves has been distorted to the quite ludicrous point where an otherwise worthwhile and legitimate recreational pursuit has become the cultural yardstick by which we measure our distinctiveness and difference from all other nationalities and ascertain how far down the line we have come from those "dark days" when crossing the border at Berwick, Coldstream or Gretna meant a good deal more than scoring a goal against the "Auld Enemy" of an hour and a half. "Playing for your country" - quite literally - has become the highest aspirational status that any Scot could possibly envisage.

Playing at being a nation, pretending that we are adults for the duration of a sporting fixture, competing with the big boys - those slightly bemused foreigners who cannot quite get to grips with Scotland's schizophrenic double-life as a run-of-the-mill participant in international football, rugby, golf or snooker, but also jokebook country with less visibility in real international forums than Liechtenstein or Tuvalu.

What is it with this country that no-one, or so it would seem, can snap out of the quite breathtaking delusion that Scotland's status as a fully-fledged participant of say, FIFA or International Rugby Board conventions is somehow perfectly normal, that this goes without saying ? Is there some broadly-held belief in Scottish life, from the terracing punter to the back-page copy writer, that Scotland has some kind of divine right to sporting independence in terms of football or rugby ? Unequivocally NO - the point is, Scots cannot even conceive of the anomaly here, an anomaly for example whereby Scotland, before the eyes of the world, took on world champions Brazil in the showpiece opener of World Cup 98 - as equals, with an anthem, national colours and symbols - and yet still have in any parallel forum of international representation, less impact on deliberations than the flatulence of a Brazilian ambassador.

The apologists of Union consistently prove that one can quite brazenly reconcile the so-called emotional patriotism of following "Bonnie Scotland" whilst indulging in oh-so-atavistic English-baiting with the morning-after pill of level-headed, realistic Britishism which as you all know, children, helps Scotland punch above its weight in the big scary world of international relations.

That Scottishness has increasingly come to be equated with periodic reaffirmations of the pledge "We'll support you evermore..." is indeed a sad reflection on the truly pathetic depths to which our indigenous cultural aspirations have sunk. Let no-one in Scotland be disingenuous about this matter, from the lager-swilling working-class scarfer to the Barbour jacket clones of rugger-following suburbia, definitions of national identity unfailingly and inevitably revolve around sporting criteria. "Braveheart" Scottish footballers, Murrayfield's finest sons "sending them homewards to think again", kilted darts players with tartan flights on their symbolic claymores... modern Scotland's ongoing obsession with back-page tittle-tattle is the daily refuge of a nation at a loss to say why it ever became the distinct community it is and which will clutch at anything which reassures it in its basic unformulated, inarticulate assumptions. We're Scots, we've got oor ain fitba team, haven't we ? Sorry, but not good enough. While it is clear that Scotland's obsession with football and golf led mediaeval Scottish monarchs to take measures against their pernicious effect on statutory military training at a time when the safety of the realm was a daily and universal concern, quite the opposite pertains today in relation to the integrity of the United Kingdom and the putative threat posed thereto by the allegedly rampant terracing nationalism of Hampden or Murrayfield. Today, thinking too much about sport is, conspiracy theories aside, the great safety valve with which to give vent to lingering vestiges of Scottish combativity and on-going expressions of grievance, self-pity and cultural inarticulacy which many commentators (not footballing) have identified as "the cringe".

Unionists in all their snivelling guises need not lose too much sleep over the possibility that one day, Scotland's sporting heroes might, G.A.A.-like, strike out for Scottish freedom as the logical complement to fighting for Scotland on the field of play. These overpaid musclebrains are far more likely to dream of the day when having amassed 50 caps for Scotland and entered the SFA's hall of fame, they will be able to answer Her Britannic Majesty's call and collect that well-earned gong, either one of those resonant symbols of Scottish endeavour - the MBE or OBE. "And the fans, they've been terrific to me during my career, I'd like to dedicate this prestigious award to them, like..." What are the chances of an articulate Scottish footballer making a stand and declining the above on the grounds that given the absence of a united British football team, accepting an ostensibly British recompense would be wholly inappropriate ? About as much chance as a member of the Scottish XV refusing to play for the so-called British Lions, a heterogeneous mish-mash of Englishmen, anglophile Jocks and Taffs and geographically not to mention politically-warped Irishmen who should know better than swallow the old "British Isles" bullshit.

Scottish sport and especially the two footballs - Association and Rugby Union - are irrefutably British in their outlook, paying mere lip-service to a superficial veneer of autonomous Scottishness in their administration. Given their popularity, they perpetuate the old "Home Nations" brand of cosy, Pathe News nationalism. "Up and at them, Jimmy". "Good for you, Paddy". "Play up, play up Taffy". The kind of gut-wrenching Denis Law Scottishness based on nothing more than the anomalous tradition of playing for England's loyal Northern province and convenient playing partner in those pioneering days when The Football Association had little recourse but to test their spiffing new rules in stage-managed jolly British affairs called England v Scotland "internationals". "Good Lord, man, you didn't expect us to issue invitations to oily non-British types, did you? Why the confounded blighters might just have beaten our men. No, no.. the Jocks will do the trick admirably". Anglomaniac sycophancy being what it is in Scotland, those involved in Scottish football always needed the annual fixture with the English a lot more than the latter did... England has its head stuck so firmly up its Greenwich meantime that it doesn't need anybody for anything at anytime. Mummy, as ever, knows best. It took a half-dozen World Cup finals for Blighty to finally accept an invitation to participate. Those greasy foreign Johnnies couldn't possibly know what they were doing. And of course Jockoland had to take its medicine and behave like a good little founding member of international football's governing elite. A cosy arrangement this, in FIFA conventions, whereby The Football Association, i.e. England's, can call the shots internationally, counting as it always can on the lapdog support of the other three "Home" associations. Four voices for the price of one--how convenient. So much so that some federations/associations in several continents are demanding to know how this glaring inequity not to mention contradiction can continue. Either Scotland is a Nation-State with, as such, the rights deriving from international law to enjoy independent political, cultural and sporting representation, or it is NOT, with the consequent ineligibility this entails for international organisations. Does Scotland compete at the Olympics ? NO it does not. Do we even compete at football at the Olympics within a united British team? NO, because once you start to compete as any other Nation-State you lose your ridiculous little privilege of being in effect a province with the uppity status of a State. Time to choose, Scotland, what is more important: football or statehood ? Nationhood means responsibilities; statehood entails these and more, and it is therefore the job of all nationalists working for independence to highlight all the little contradictions that our sporting obsessions throw up, all the cosy assumptions and dangerous delusions which come together to hold us back, divide and hypnotise us into continued subordination to our perennial blood enemy. Let us have no more misplaced comments about other small countries not being worthy of participation in world competition when our own is based on the "having your cake and eating it" principle. We unquestioningly demand a football and rugby team while at the same time shirking the responsibilities and political maturity which come with Statehood.

Let us have no more inanity about British Leagues and British Cups in football as the consequences of this - in reality - logical step would be patent for all to see, except of course for so many of our deluded selves... the rejection of any continued status and eligibility for Scotland's national team. The same could well apply for other non-Olympic sports such as rugby, in the foreseeable future. By all means let us have pride in our identity and express it, if need be, in international sporting arenas. Let us fly the Saltire and Lion Rampant in the great stadia of the world, but let us get sport into some kind of rational perspective. The Tartan Army - a quaint little euphemism which if anything tarnishes the heroic memory of "an t-arm breac" the tartan-clad host praised by Alasdair MacMhaighstir Alasdair - are a lot of things, colourful or otherwise, but they are certainly not ambassadors for our country. Even allowing for the obligatory "unofficial" coming before such a designation, there can be no doubt however that for many people in Scotland, this is precisely what they are, bringing the good tidings of Caledonian drink-imbibed schmaltz to the incredulous denizens of cities from Buenos Aires to Tallinn. Fair-play awards are all very well, gloating over the self-revealed truth that they are everyone's favourite, policewomen-kissing, hairy barbarians has a certain native charm, but far from revealing imminent sainthood for Wee Chic and ra boays fae Garthamlock, these outpourings of "Hug-a-Scot-today" exhibitionism betray the quite obvious fact that anything the English do in terms of football support must be avoided at all costs. If the English have a reputation for hooliganism, then it follows that we must be the world's footballing care-bears. "If you hate the f....ing English, clap your hands" goes the well known ditty, sung in stadia, pubs, streets, urinals, fountains and airport lounges the world over. The thing is, when we're not showing the world, rightly in a way, though in the most ostentatiously embarrassing fashion, that we get on with everyone except the English.... when we're not doing that, we're making hollow threats, playing at being warriors, drumming up hatred for a talismanic enemy who no sooner the hubbub of sporting competition died down, becomes our "fellow Briton" again. "Aw the Geordie boys are awright". "They're no so bad they Scousers". There can be no question that individuals of whatever ethnic or national origin can be and often are mirror-images of ourselves with hopes, fears, failings and qualities that we would recognise as informing our own daily existence. That is not open to question. What is, is the idea that national grievance... against the one foreign enemy (we needless to say, have internal enemies also, called traitors) which has for more than a millennium directly or indirectly threatened our very existence... can be somehow expurgated through terracing chants and success on the playing field.

Ultimately football and rugby "nationalism" is little more than posturing; if a centuries-old enemy such as England and its agencies of colonial subjugation in Scotland are to be tackled and overcome in whatever scenario, political or otherwise, the future throws up, it is in the real world of genuine "action" that we will "be a nation again". The transferral of icons of nationality on to an essentially anomalous footballing and rugby status or indeed on to foreign or semi-foreign prejudices (as is the case with the Old Firm) means that for a stateless nation like Scotland, sport is definitely more than just a game. The unacceptable fact remains however that this perversion of national energies plays into the hands of those many fanatics (the full form of the word 'fan') who purport to hate the English and who challenge them to fantasy fights which in truth they would much rather bring to their fellow Scots in housing schemes and outside city-centre pubs every week of the year. Stop playing at being hard Scotland.

Rise up or the game's up.


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