A bitter pill for the Tartan Army

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em>

The Scotland football manager, Craig Brown, is not a man much given to outward show; he has never been seen to react to events on the football field either by leaping in the air or reeling backwards, hands on head, in appalled disbelief.

Craig's emotions rage inwardly. When Scotland lose yet another goal, his mouth purses a little more. Standing forlorn on the touchline, Craig looks like the before-man in an advertisement for antacids. Perhaps Rennie or Zantac could pioneer a new form of negative football sponsorship; something along the lines - we know the team is bad, but we can cure what they do to you. Craig could be an excellent front man. His recovery rate is nothing short of amazing; in the moments between the end of another disastrous, dyspeptic game and the touchline interview, he always finds something - anything - to say. This is phenomenal fast-acting relief.

When Scotland were predictably despatched from the European Championships (this is written in the absolute certainty that Scotland will not have won 3-1 at Wembley last Wednesday night, while this magazine was at press. If they did then the sky will also have fallen in, and it won't matter) it was hardly a surprise. The assortment of male models, mouth-breathers and hatchet men who make up the current Ingerland team clearly had several gears in reserve at Hampden Park on Saturday last. What is surprising is the astonishing level of passionate interest in football by very large numbers of otherwise sensible people. Why do groups of middle-aged men (many of them politicians), and increasingly, women, have such a profound and informed interest in groin strains, the identity of the next manager of Alloa Athletic or the composition of the groups for next year's Champions League? Why have senior civil servants in Glasgow had their careers blighted by suspension because they used their internal phone system to jump the queue to buy tickets for Scotland's inevitable defeat by England? In short, why have the middle classes become so involved with football in recent times?

Money may provide part of the answer. Long gone are the days when flat-capped crowds surged back and forth on the open terraces, and clubs were run by the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker. Television has injected sizeable sums into clubs and safety considerations have forced crowds to sit down. The middle classes can now go to games, eat beforehand, watch in comfort and park their cars nearby.

But why do they want to go in the first place, given that the standard of football, particularly in Scotland, is so lamentable? For people who lead complicated and stressful lives, it may be that a 90-minute match is an attractively intense experience. Visceral, an event sealed within itself and something, for once, with a clear and unambiguous outcome, a football match can be seen as a release. Stands and hospitality suites are full of accountants, solicitors and bankers leaping off their seats at a goal or a near-miss, even in more uninhibited moments shouting obscenities at the ref. There is probably also a high degree of wannabe identification involved. For those whose paunches preclude anything more than a day's gardening with plenty of breaks, that identification can become almost transcendental. Goals are often scored by one striker and 50,000 ghosts running beside him. (For another view, see page 18.)

When Scotland played England last week, questions of identity were not difficult. The wee laddies in blue doing their best were the Scots and the big men controlling the game were the English. And they were a lot better at it. In an obvious sense the national side are a far better indicator of the health of Scottish football than Rangers, Celtic and the other leading clubs who can and do buy many foreign players. The diagnosis is also obvious. Scottish football is at best mediocre and at worst terrible.

In Sweden the government and local authorities took concerted and well-planned action a few years ago to improve the performance of their sportsmen and women in a small number of selected disciplines. For a small country where the climate is restrictive, the Swedes produce an extraordinary number of successful golfers, tennis players and winter sportsmen and women. If football is so important to the men who run Scotland and Britain, then why is substantial political action not being taken on a wide scale to put a plan in place to lift Scottish football out of the mire it flounders in at the moment? Organisation, vision and resources could and should be found to produce results that would do wonders for Craig Brown's digestion and prove to the world that the poor man can smile. In the Tartan Army Scotland has a well-behaved and devoted following that deserves better, and has the vote.

Alistair Moffat

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