Part 2a                                                                                                                                                                Posted 16th August 2013

Scotland - Argentina, 1978

Travelling overland to support the Scottish football team in Argentina is a bit like going to Wembley via Outer Mongolia. You miss having the point of your Journey confirmed by tartan scarves fluttering from the windows of every second car. Instead, your passing is an odd inconsequence in landscapes where people can't quite locate you on their mental map. They say, 'Scotland? That is in England?' and 'You speak English quite well.' You wonder if you can arrive with your passion for the game intact.

Everywhere we have passed through seems a long way from the Horseshoe Bar in Glasgow, an old-fashioned pub off Renfield Street, where our group met to finalise plans. There are six of us: Gerry McDermott, a 25-year-old bus driver from Castlemilk in Glasgow; Charlie Gibbons, a 20-year-old labourer from Castlemilk; Alister Steele, a 21-year-old barman from Glasgow; Alasdair Buchan, a Scottish journalist living in London; myself, and Peter Stone, a professional photographer from Wraysbury, who must sometimes feel as outnumbered as an Englishman at Wembley.

The plans sounded simple in the comfort of the Horseshoe. We would all meet up in London on April 14 and take the Laker Skytrain to New York. From there we would go by bus and train through the States, Central America and South America to Cordoba in Argentina, where Scotland are scheduled to play their first matches in the World Cup in early June. Only once would we take a short flight, from San Jose In Costa Rice to Bogota, the Colombian capital, avoiding the problems of the Darien Gap in Panama.

That meeting in the Horseshoe was like the first scene of an old film plot, the one where the disparate group of people come together to fulfil a common purpose. We weren't planning to rob a bank or find the treasure of the Sierra Madre but we did follow the script to the extent that Charlie Gibbons and I managed to have the statutory quarrel.

Peace was restored but a nice amount of tension had been created. Apart from one travelling-bag, some of us started out, I think, with some cumbersome preconceptions. This was Superwembley, to be approached with a kind of fierce insouciance. It's a quality which is characterised for me by a fan I met on a Glasgow bus after one trip to an international match in London. When I asked where he had stayed on the Friday night, he said, 'Oh, we didn't stay anywhere. We just sat about fountains an' that.'

We arrived in New York roughly in that frame of mind. I managed to make this seem just a normal trip by losing my wallet in the taxi coming in from Kennedy Airport. Luckily, I never keep money in it. We checked in at the YMCA on West Thirty-Fourth Street and Charlie Gibbons said, 'Come on. We'll go out and see who's first to get mugged.'

We fell on the neighbourhood like locusts, seeking instant New York. We moved through a succession of bars where everybody's accent seemed to have been flown in that day from Ireland. The names of them should have given us a clue to what we would find — 'O'Reilly's', 'Killarney Rock'. We spoke to a spectacularly drunk Irishman who was trying to decide who was the best footballer ever and who was changing his mind every other minute with the arbitrariness of God. But one he favoured strongly was someone called Beckenbounder.

Suddenly, most of us were pleading jet-lag. It was one o'clock in the morning and complicated calculations took place about what was the real time and how long we had been out of bed. The rest retired but Charlie Gibbons and I are congenital sufferers from the Scottish fans' compulsion to hang onto every occasion in the hope of witnessing its miraculous transformation into an event.

We ended up in another bar in Jackson Heights. It was about four o'clock in the morning. 'Jet-lag,' Charlie Gibbons said. 'We gave it a walloping all right,' and went quietly to sleep.

Still, we had our revelation. On the elevated railway back into the city, a clean-shaven man with a cigarette behind each ear declared himself to Charlie. 'Not many people know,' he said discreetly, 'that I am Jesus. But I have touched you and now you will be in heaven with me.' Charlie Gibbons thanked him.

But that first sortie into New York came to be felt as an attempt to meet a new situation with an old tradition, rather like the Polish cavalry attacking tanks. Unlike London, the streets of New York offer the marauding Scotsman no facile sense of national identity through contrast. In New York contrasts are infinite. They tend to dissipate a sense of identity rather than precipitate one.

The sense of alienation we felt was paradoxically increased by going to a football match on the Sunday. New York Cosmos (complete with Beckenbounder) were playing Tulsa Roughnecks. The Giants' Stadium in New Jersey has superb facilities which reminded us that Hampden Park resembles nothing so much as a public lavatory for over 100,000 people.

But at the centre of the hot-dog counters and the excellent seating there is astroturf, the synthetic surface of which makes deep tackling a thing of the past. The way that manufactured grass rejects instead of complementing the impact of the players precludes ultimate athleticism and with it, to some extent, the passion of the spectators.

The organisers have tried to cope with this. They have, of course, the cheer­leaders, 12 ladies in skimpy costumes doing mysterious semaphoric things, using what appear to be powder-puffs with elephantiasis. Their skin glows like fairy-lights. As someone remarked, 'Imagine that in Glasgow. There would be a break-in in five minutes. They'd have to renew the women every week.'

There is also a television screen that tells you how you should react. `Ouch,' it says for a foul. 'That was a no-no.' Did you see that?' it says. `Good grief.' But I think my favourite thing it says is 'Charge' to the sound of the bugle I used to hear as a boy when the cavalry were coming.

There is, of course, a case for informing the crowd about a sport which is new to them. But that hardly justifies giving their reactions a lobotomy. The television screen even does a rhythmic handclapping sequence to which the crowd responds with 'Cosmos' like an internment camp of brainwashed detainees. I kept waiting for the screen to flash 'Keep breathing'.

Sitting among the computerised crowd, the six of us made up a desert island of our own. Someone muttered, 'Trades Description Act.' Without warning, Gerry McDermott shouted in a voice that rose into the bland sky like a flare, 'Come away, Tulsa!' But they didn't. Cosmos scored a few minutes from time from a Beckenbauer free-kick that bobbled mysteriously through the defensive wall. It looked as if Tulsa had been doing set-piece practice on how to let in goals. Even soccer was a different game here.

What New York taught us, the rest of America confirmed: our journey to Argentina lay through almost complete irrelevance to others. It was going to be a long way through which to carry our commitment without refuelling from outside sources.

The strain this put on our group was heightened by the next leg of the journey, by Greyhound bus to New Orleans for 33 hours solid. During most of that time, it seems to me, the big blond man opposite explained carefully to his black girlfriend, speaking in a gruff southern drawl, how he 'beat the shit out of' an impressive assortment of people — including, if I heard him right, his father.

The only other incident I recall from that sequence of weird dreams, shifting pains and stiff-legged walks to Coca-Cola machines happened at a lunch-counter. A black man who was tall enough to be on stilts complained to the man at the cash-register that he had put a quarter in a vending machine without result. He wanted his money back. The man, white, fat and perspiring, explained very politely that the machine wasn't his responsibility. He called the black man 'sir'. 'Sir' wasn't mollified. He said, 'There are guys around would blow your head off for 25 cents. And maybe I'm one of them.'

Neither of these casually gathered conversations was calculated to make us feel more at home. As if looking instinctively for an antidote, we went to play a game of football in New Orleans, having bought a ball like a talisman. As a salve to our fraying nerves, the game was as effective as a salt bandage. Charlie Gibbons and Alister Steele fell out over a tackle in which Charlie seemed to be standing in for a scythe. Our communal purposefulness degenerated into aimless bickering. Charlie disagreed with everybody.

Once when he vanished from the group, I found him in a fire-station, sitting in the cabin of a huge fire-engine, morosely studying the controls, with a rough-looking middle-aged man shouting at him, 'Hey, Mac, what the hell you doing?'

I think I know what Charlie was doing. He was looking for a Wembley substitute, an anecdote in embryo that would convince him he really was a Scottish fan en route to a game. 'I was going to ask them if I could go out to a fire with them,' he said. And, 'I still don't believe I'm going to Argentina.'

That sense of disbelief was affecting all of us. It found us after the next stage of our trip sitting in a bar in Laredo, a matter of minutes from the Mexican border and passing a Spanish dictionary among us. We were plucking at desultory phrases, rather as if David were to begin hunting for stones in the shadow of Goliath. We found a few. 'Lo siento mucho — I am very sorry' was suggested for Charlie. With a face that butts like the prow of a ship into every problem and with his red hair, he sometimes comes into places in the manner of a longship bent on pillage. It was felt that in the land of machismo he might need to know how to apologise.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


  e-mail:                                                                     Photo © Eric Gordon