Part 5a                                                                                                                                                             Posted 18th September 2013

It seems possible that the answer to the endlessly arid rotation of euphoria and despair in the Scottish support lies not in changing the team but in changing the fans. For years the terracings of grounds where Scotland have played have been covered by Scottish magi who seem to need nothing less than to see their lives given meaning on a football pitch. This time our stable In Córdoba has revealed to us nothing but a not unfamiliar pile of manure.

Yet like someone whose arm has been long since amputated we insist on continuing to feel the pain. Last week in Córdoba a Scottish fan, so wild in his Highland attire he made Harry Lauder look like an Englishman, told me at great length how the Scottish team had robbed him of his identity and made him a laughing-stock in the town. It would have been facile to suggest a pin-stripe suit. His pain was real. It is its reality which is depressing. As someone who in Córdoba has shared in that experience to a degree unprecedented for me, perhaps because it took me six weeks to get here, I find the intensity of my own initial reactions to the performance of a football team disconcertingly extreme.

Passion, of course, is an essential part of the game. Like theatre, the excitement of football begins in the preparedness of spectators to give themselves up to the temporary importance of what is happening. Like theatre, football allows the cathartic expression of strong feelings in a safe and stylised context.

What worries me about the Scottish supporters' relationship to the game is our tendency to want to storm the stage, the apparent willingness of so many of us to make our lives just an adjunct of our chosen form of theatre. Like inhabitants of some weird psychological outback, we succumb to a naively total identification with the performance that is roughly equivalent to wanting to shoot the actor who plays Richard the Third. If the World Cup is the West End of football, the Scottish game is a crude and ineffectual form of group therapy in which players and fans desperately improvise towards some mutually acceptable sense of themselves. Instead of being a natural extension of our lives, an expression of ourselves, it remains the nexus of a stubborn national neurosis.

One possible cure might have been success. Winning a World Cup could presumably allow us to admit that it is only a game and that after all the Scottish Messiah isn't going to appear wearing a 9 on his jersey. But the Argentine experience should remind us that if we're going to wait that long, we could all be doolally enough, before it happens, to make playing headers with a concrete ball the national sport.

Failure looks like the only teacher who will turn up regularly. In the absence of very much else, maybe we can learn from our mistakes. For years now we have been hitching a wagon loaded with the bizarre furniture of Scottishness to a team of ants in the hope of going somewhere. Every time they die in harness, we renew them. Now it's surely time to accept irrevocably the alternative conclusion that we're asking football to do more for us than the nature of the thing allows.

There are already isolated signs that some Scots are newly anxious to release the game from its current megalomaniac status and let it revert to being a pleasant part of our lives. Many times in the past couple of weeks people have suggested to me that they will never support Scotland in the same way again. These include supporters who have travelled overland, some who took a package-deal for the duration of the games, some who did the same for the first fortnight, and others — the kind of punters that might bet on a dead horse - who didn't arrive until after Scotland's first three games.

I'm not suggesting they're going to take up politics. But all of them gave the very strong impression that it would be a long time before they would invest a few games of football with the same kind of exaggerated importance again. I think for such an evaluation to become more general would be healthy both for the team and the supporters.

In my own case, the forcible bursting of my oxygen-tent of preoccupation with Scotland's chances here has, apart from a brief period of strangulated adjustment, left me glad to inhabit a wider context again. With your own team out of the reckoning, it's at least easier to take in the wider connotations of what is happening here, perhaps encapsulated most effectively and worryingly in the recent scene where an Argentine crowd had to be prevented by the police from attacking the Mad Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that group of people who demonstrate regularly in Buenos Aires against the unexplained disappearance of relatives. The fact that the motivation of those who objected to the demonstrators was that a bad impression was being given of Argentina, may indicate the extent to which this World Cup has been conceived as an exercise in press relations.

Such realisations cannot detract from the overwhelming warmth of the Argentine people in the streets nor, glimpsed as they are in the passing, can they be more at the moment than misgivings. But at least to be aware of them, to be conscious that not all the shadows over the games come from the floodlights, has to be healthy.
Of course, one lucid interval doesn't make a cure. It may be that by the time Wembley comes round we will all have suffered a complete relapse. Certainly, I will want to be there as well as, God and the Clydesdale Bank willing, in Spain in 1982. After all, football remains simply the best ball-game in the world.

But apart from changes in the team-formation, I wouldn't mind seeing some significant tactical rethinking among the Scottish fans, so that if things go wrong - which in the context of Scottish football is almost a synonym for 'according to plan' - they have a stronger sense of identity to call on than can be entirely contained in a dark blue jersey. Even supporters in a crisis need to be able to field substitutes. 


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