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The Emperor’s New Strip (February 2011)

This article was first published on Bella Caledonia.

I once went to a football match. Motherwell versus Hearts at Fir Park, in the spring of 1958. One-all. I enjoyed it, but I’ve never gone to another. The same feeling recurred years later, reading the first hundred pages of Harry Potter: not bad, but did I want to read another two thousand pages when there were other, more interesting things to be done? Trains, which some might judge as nerdish (but turned out a much better bet than cars, and you can work on them) music, films, books, food and drink, and girls to share these, and a lot more, with. One said, accurately I thought, that, heard at night, the Whoo-Whooooo of an American train at a grade crossing was almost as sexy as the act itself.

My sporting indifference is actually shared by most Scots, Jill Tamson’s Bairns, who think the male-bonding issue is as boring as the game itself – thank you, Ruth Wishart! – and don’t want to get involved. But as Jean Brodie said about Girl Guiding, ‘For those that like that sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing such people like.’ So why bother to stir the antheap up? I suppose because, unstirred-up, it exhales stuff like Gerry Hassan’s in a recent Hootsmon, in which he did in a fair imitation of Private Eye’s Glenda Slagg: ‘Rangers and Celtic’ our wonderful Saturdays! / The Old Firm, aintcha sick of them!’ or something of the sort. Hassan can file good copy, but some of his recent stuff has got an accolade from Brian Naeteeth, which suggests a period of self-communing. Caitlin O’Hara, in Bella on the feisty Mesdames Riddoch, McMillan, McAlpine and Blythman, points out how constructively critical of the state of the nation they’ve been, unlike the political men. But the football element seems even more to imprison old Macho Mac. The two collided when some commentator was found doing sexism when miked-up. He was on a million-and-a-half a year, which would probably bankroll every Scottish blogsite forever.

My brother Steve recollects that when he was an apprentice, in the late 1960s, your florin bought you a pint, a fish supper or a place on the terraces at wherever. Now the pint will cost three quid, the fish supper a bit more, but the football clocks in at £ 25 plus, unless you relativise the lot by slumping at home, pay Rupert, eye the plasma, neck a Tescopint and down a Chinese. We spend at least half-a-billion on football and precious little good does it do us, even in the recycling of the crazy salaries paid to the boys via the other bits – tits and fists – of Rupert’s press.

I’m all in favour of playing and supporting football – or any other non-destructive game of skill – as an aid to health and local patriotism, but what we have in Scotland is far from that. Our last great triumph was in 1998 when we proved it was possible to celebrate without success. In the cities of France a most unpleasant World Cup was looming up, with racist thuggery dragging its knuckles along any available gutter, encouraged by the far right. Enter the Tartan Army, which had seen enough of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart to realise that here was the stuff of glorious parody. Out of the woad rage of Mad Mac and his hirsutes – Michael Forsyth’s favourite film, mark that! – the Jimmy Hat was born, and inaugurated the Cup as Carnival, to whose huge street-screens you could take the wife and kids: a fest of wimpish, childish pleasure on which the venom of the yobs broke, almost harmlessly. The Scots were back before their passports, but the French won with an immigrant-propelled team under Zidane. Le Pen returned to his crypt.

That said, Scotland didn’t qualify again, and the rot went on. Grand stadia rose above struggling town centres, like the new cathedrals of some weird cult: Newcastle’s St James’s bankrolled by Northern Wreck after its original bosses (who rose with the out-of-town MetroCentre responsible for the rot) were on-miked trashing their supporters. Some tabloid found a Chinese city utterly devoted to David Beckham. Was this an intriguing delusion, like Norman Wisdom, Saviour of Albania? Not quite. The industrious Chinese were churning out football strip, which was then flogged to the fans at incredible mark-ups by the billionaire-owned clubs. And of course the plasma screen TVs, the instruments of Sky Sports, saviours of our remaining pubs, consumed almost four times as much electricity as old fashioned cathode ray tubes – perhaps 400 Kgs of CO2 a year – add this to your 2500 Kgs for the car! Reckon this toxic stuff up and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Flannelled fools at the wicket, and muddied oafs at the goal’ seemed quite innocuous.

It is a fact universally acknowledged that small European countries do better than big ones. Might an aspect of this be that their sports systems will inevitably tend to be small and amateur, while a big country will have the overhead capital to keep up a league and its mass-market? This furnishes a whole lot of lucrative distractions from the business of living together modestly, democratically and securely, and will appeal to those – generally the rich and right-wing – who want to keep folk distracted. Here in Scotland we ought to be co-operative, but we have two rich stroppy teenagers in our kindergarten, and we get the worst of both worlds. Might our ‘Emperor’s new strip’ moment almost be upon us – at last?

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