Part 4                                                                                                                                                                 Posted 7th September 2013

The journey, it begins to seem, might have been scripted by Cervantes, Those of us who have travelled from New York to Córdoba using anything to get here from Greyhound buses to a Victorian train across the Bolivian Altiplano, like Don Quixote changing crazy horses, feel that we have been hurrying merely to confront our own illusions. Our destination finds bleak reality behind them.

Wakening up to face facts has brought some fierce reactions. In our own small group of six hopeful travellers, the most severely affected has been Alister Steele, who has from the start approached the trip as if each new country were no more fascinating than a stepping-stone, the only purpose of which was to lead to the next one, All he wanted was to arrive. The defeat of Scotland by Peru taught him harshly where it was he had come to. He left the stadium in tears and gave away his ticket for the game against Iran, as well as every tartan accoutrement anyone would take. Charlie Gibbons and Gerry McDermott were more cautious. They waited until Scotland had drawn with Iran before deciding to join Alister in leaving for home as soon as possible.

At Córdoba on Wednesday when Scotland drew with Iran the most intense confrontation of the day happened after the game when some Scottish fans got as near as they could to the exit-tunnel and hurled abuse at their own team. It was a moment both futile and ugly, like a schizophrenic having a quarrel with himself. Men who had travelled thousands of miles turned against their own reason for coming and shouted obscenities at it. Between the baffled faces of the players and the baffled rage of their supporters a Lion Rampant fell to the ground like something too heavy for either to hold.

The hurt goes deeper than a one-all draw with Iran. That tedious game where everybody seemed to be moving through three feet of water has merely obliged the fans to acknowledge what they have reluctantly suspected since Saturday. If Peru presented us with the corpse of Scottish football, Iran has signed the death certificate. As far as many of the supporters are concerned, the cause of death was cardiac failure. Time and again people have told me here that defeat is all right ('we've had a lot of practice') but not defeat without honourable commitment and effort. The suggestion is always to the effect that the amount of heart shown by the Scottish team in both games wouldn't fill a contact lens. That charge is all the more severe when set against the commitment shown by the Scottish supporters in just being there. Some have put themselves in hock for months ahead. Others, like Robbie Sterry, a 19-year-old from Perth who has less than $50 left, will find it a hard way home through the gloom.

The pain they feel is a bit like that of unrequited love. One supporter, a huge young man from Aberdeen called Raymond, a kind of one-man supporters' club, epitomised it to me. At the beginning of the game against Iran he was waving his Saltire and leading a section of the crowd in singing. Fifteen minutes before half-time I found him crying in his beer behind the stand. In the second-half he was back to full voice, while the torpor of the match made no reply.

Such demented hunting for a response to brute events has been shared to some extent by all of us. After Wednesday's match, the Sorocabana, a bar in the Plaza San Martin, which is now a temporary Scottish colony, became a kind of trauma-ward for Scottish psyches. Normally undemonstrative men embraced, as if trying to be a bandage for each other's pain. Dead-eyed conversation would erupt gradually into Flower of Scotland and We'll Support You Evermore. Frequently after the songs they would subside again, like people recovering from demoniac possession. Having just finished singing, one man said to me, 'Who needs to support that load of rubbish?'

Charlie Gibbons gave a German supporter his ticket for the game against Holland at Mendoza and danced among the tables with Louise. Willie from Kirkcaldy thought we should pay more attention to politics. Frederick William Turner, 'Topsy' for short, a coloured Scotsman from Dumfries, refused to mitigate his exuberance for any result. The Argentinians helped, as they sang along with us. One even reminded me of their own débâcle in 1966.

The statistic of seven women to every man in Cordoba was another source of soothing. Since the Scots arrived, beautiful girls have turned up in bars asking questions like, 'You know where is Robert? He has the red hair.' Wednesday night was no exception. I'm still haunted by the bizarre image of a handsome, kilted Scotsman explaining with great linguistic difficulty the exact nature of the Scottish team's failure to a stunning blonde, while her eyes ate him whole.

But while the camaraderie of the supporters was real, the pain of their alienation from the team they came to support remained extreme. They are left with a deep affection for the spontaneous generosity and kindness of the Argentine people and a sense that nevertheless they have been cheated of their true purpose in coming here.

It is mathematically possible that Scotland may still qualify. Even if we do, the feeling will remain that a betrayal has taken place. The sense of betrayal will not lie in the failure itself but in the spectacular inadequacy of our attempts to avoid it. On Wednesday most of the blame was being heaped on the man some of them have rechristened, in that gallows humour honed on constant failure, Ally McClown. 'You promised everything, you gave us nothing,' somebody shouted.

It is perhaps a particularly Scottish trait, assumptive optimism. It is a belief among many fans that it has led to the arrogance of inadequate preparation. It has left us with the question that was being chanted sardonically in the Sorocabana on Wednesday night: 'Oh, why are we so bad?'

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


  e-mail:                                                                     Photo © Eric Gordon