Football isn’t a political matter - it’s much more important than that. The First Minister, Jack McConnell, was taken severely to task last week for failing to support England in the World Cup. There have been cries of outrage from the guardians of the Scottish media. McConnell is supposed to be a unionist, they cried! Surely he should be able to support our UK brothers in this great endeavour. Where is his patriotism?
For refusing to back England, McConnell has been accused of fomenting anti-english prejudce, of making a cheap bid for the nationalist vote and of demonstraing his immaturity and woeful judgement. And Jimmy Hill didn’t like it much either.
Er, but, hang on. This is a football match we’re talking about, not the war in Iraq. Since when was it obligatory for unionists to demonstrate their commitment to Britain by supporting a handful over-paid prima-donnas prancing around the pitch showing off their latest hair styles?
The First Minister isn’t alone. The redoubtable Scottish Tory leader, Annabel Goldie, told me that she would be waiting to see the “form” before deciding whom to back. She may be an arch unionist, but she certainly wasn’t going to back England until she had had a chance to inspect their fetlocks. Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t ventured an opinion, though I am assured she will be joining the “gone shopping” party for the duration of the World Cup.
As a non-believer, the World Cup largely passes me by, as it does the other half of the Scottish population. But I certainly don’t feel under any obligation to support the English football team, unless they demonstrate that they’re worth it. And I don’t see any reason why the First Minister should lie about something as trivial as who he is minded to support in a sporting fixture.
McConnell said he would be supporting the underdogs, which seems to me far truer to the great British sporting tradition than backing lisping chavs like David Beckham, who seems about as far as you can get from a true patriotic role model. The idea that McConnell has betrayed his country is ludicrous. Were Chelsea supporters weeping when Barcelona defeated Arsenal in the Champtions League? Hardly. Was that unpatriotic?
I think supporting Trinidad and Tobago is a great idea, and not just because they have a goal-keeper whose second name is “Scotland”. The SNP leader Alex Salmond set the TT ball rolling, and I think it will go the distance. Scotland is the ultimate sporting underdog, and we should be supporting outsiders. Surely it would be good for sport in general for a team from this small former British colony to take the title - or even defeat England.
The truth, as everyone knows, is that the vast majority of Scots will not support England and will indulge in Schadenfreude at every set back for the three lions. And no Shadenfreude isn’t a new brand of white beer - it means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. Many will do so almost in spite of themselves. And the crunch will come if there is a replay of 1966.
I vividly recall having dinner with some Scottish BBC executives in a smart Westminster restaurant patronised by MPs and ministers on the night of the finals in the 1996 Euros. When Gareth Southgate missed his penalty, the Scots rose as one, and then hastily sat down again when they realised that half the Tory party was watching them. It was the funniest thing since Basil Fawlty tried not to mention the war.
The BBC Jocks weren’t being racist or unpatriotic, they were just being Scottish. Is it wrong? - well, its a little childish I suppose, but hardly a sin. I’ve been known to indulge in this vice myself on occasion - often at the expense of the United States of America or Tony Blair, and while I’m not proud of it, I’m not going to pretend that it doesn’t happen.
But what of the English? Will they forgive Scotland for not supporting the greatest heroes ever to walk planet earth? Already Jimmy Hill, the hammer of the Scots, has put the boot in, ably assisted by Jack Straw and the Scottish Labour MPs.
We are warned that a tide of anti-Scottish feeling is mounting over the prospect of a Scot - Gordon Brown - entering NumberTen. What this has to do with football, I’m not sure. However we are told that there is a connexion. The Daily Telegraph says a Scottish “Raj” is ruling England. A poll conducted by the BBC recently suggested that 52% of English voters think Gordon Brown shouldn’t become Prime Minister because he is Scottish.
Actually, this is not football, it’s racialism. Change “Scot” to “black” or “Jewish” and the Telegraph would be in the dock for inciting racial hatred. We are told that supporting England in the world cup is the best was of appeasing this anti-Scottishness that is allegedly running rampant along with the Cross of St George. Well, I say you don’t appease racialism - you defy it.
Anyone who cannot understand the difference between supporting a football team and placing a racial barrier to political office needs to read some history. But look, I am not ruling out supporting England. I’m no great follower of rugby, but when England won the World Cup I couldn’t help but admire their extraordinary skill and courage.
If the England football team prove themselves on he pitch in (where) by their sportsmanship (hah - an archaic concept that) their commitment and their brilliance then they will have earned the support of the Scots. But then, I can’t promise that I won’t turn off the commentary.