No one said it; but it was in everybody’s minds. Was Alex Salmond the twelfth man? Had the Scottish football team in Parc de Princes been so inspired by the new Scottish government that they were moved to deliver the greatest Scottish sporting achievement in recorded time?
SNP MSPs are in no doubt that nationalism works on the football pitch just as it does in parliament. Fired with national pride and a renewed sense of destiny, the Scottish football nation has risen from the grave of unionism, to shine forth again as a beacon of sporting excellence. Well, at least until we get hammered by the Ukraine.
The message went out to all SNP MSPs to avoid triumphalism. It would be undignified to be seen making political capital from the miracle of McFadden. Some things don’t need to be said. But the smile on Alex Salmond’s face said it anyway at First Minister’s Questions as he congratulated himself, and the Scottish team for the nation’s growing confidence.
Labour looked on poisonously, like the losing side at an Auld Firm game. You half expected a hail of cans and coins. They’d been robbed of credit for the prudent and imaginative policies of the Scottish Executive which had been responsible for creating the best wee football team in the world. Aye, right.
Nevermind, Labour has a new coach now in the shape of Wendy Alexander. Unfortunately, the new Scottish Labour leader is agnostic about Scotland’s national sporting religion and doesn’t even support a team. Muttering nationalists sense that this could be another stick with which to beat the diminutive doyenne of New Labour politics. A gulf will opened between Labour and its natural supporters; a “footie gap”, which will be mercilessly exploited by the SNP. Salmond has been a passionate Scotland supporter all his life and used to figure prominently at international fixtures in a kilt and a bus, leading the tartan army.
Mind you, half the Scottish nation don’t follow football, most of them women voters, who don’t actually think that getting blind drunk, peeing yourself and missing your flight home is a manifestation of national greatness. Owing to a genetic disorder I too find myself curiously unmoved by watching twenty two overpaid men pat about for ninety minutes with only one goal to relieve the boredom. So perhaps Wendy is actually onto a winner in not being on the ball.
But the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, isn’t taking any chances. He took time off from his talks with new best friend Margaret Thatcher, to congratulate Alex Mcleish on his sterling achievement. But Brown has form. Remember the furore when he suggested that he would be supporting England in the 2018 World Cup? His enthusiasm for that Gazza goal against Scotland a his “greatest sporting moment” is believed by some to have been a major factor in Labour’s electoral collapse on May 3rd..
The truth is that football and politics do interact in mysterious ways, especially in small countries asserting their independence from large neighbours. Look at plucky little Lithuania, which emerged from Balkan obscurity to become a significant world player. Then there is smart successful Slovenia, a tiny fragment of former Yugoslavia where football has become a focus of national aspiration.
It’s not clear that small nations necessarily do better at football after independence, but there is no evidence that they do any worse. It’s a game of two halves. However Scotland’s return to form is undoubtedly a gift to the SNP, just at the moment when the post-election euphoria was beginning to wear off. Nationalism and football can be combined to create a sense of national renewal, and Salmond knows just how to do the old one, two.