It’s been brought to my attention that there’s something called a World Cup starting later this week and that I might want to start writing about it. I’ve got to admit the enthusiasm isn’t really coming naturally to me in the way it might once have done. Maybe I’m just getting old but I’m not so sure that’s sufficient to explain it – it’s not that I’m not still capable of getting ridiculously overexcited about footie. (I’ve just read that Raith might be bidding for Kevin Smith and the prospect of seeing him and John Baird up front next season is getting me as giddy as a kid on Christmas Eve.)
I can think of a couple of other explanations though. One is that I’ve become a bit of a football snob of the type that eschews top flight footie: watching megastars do fancy tricks on telly is a poor substitute for watching a proper Scottish lower division game in the flesh on a cold wet winter’s night with a greasy pie and a polystyrene cup of tea. But the other obvious explanation, of course, is that Scotland aren’t there, and we’re having to readjust to our lowly status in world football. To miss one world cup might be considered unfortunate; to miss two in a row starts to look careless; but three? I guess that just makes us crap.
And it doesn’t help that England are now perennial qualifiers. Once, the press would have had to make at least some pretence at having an interest in other parts of the UK, but with no other home nations they’re absolved from any such gestures. It’s wall-to-wall England, and you just know if they win a couple of games it’s going to get much much worse.
I’ll let you into a secret here: I’m not really Scottish. Or at least, only by adoption. I was born English, we moved north in the late 70s when I was seven. By that time I was even the proud owner of an England strip that my grandmother bought me the previous summer. I think I even wore it to a PE class once, after we moved north, though it’s the kind of mistake you only make once. By and large though, I’d have to defend the Scots of any charge of anti-Englishness. Thirty years we’ve been up here now and beyond a bit of playground ribbing neither me nor any of my family have experienced anything untoward. I’m sure there are a few idiots but they’re few enough and far enough between that I’ve never really come across them myself. And remember that most Scots, by every poll going, want to remain in the UK – and in any event “nationalism” doesn’t have anything of the same xenophobic overtones as it does in the wider, British, context.
So you have to look for something else to explain why so few people up here will wish England well, still less actively support them, when it comes to a major tournament like this. Is it Scotland’s problem – an inferiority complex or a chip on our shoulder? Or is there genuinely something about England which is inherently dislikeable when it comes to their attitude to sport?
I’m not sure. What I do know is that, at some point in my childhood I started to support Scotland instead and indeed came to think of myself as Scottish. I don’t remember when or why or whether it was ever a conscious decision. (Despite wearing that England shirt to PE, I don’t think I’d ever thought of myself as “English” as against “Scottish” – like most English kids I don’t think I had much of a grasp of the difference between the two concepts. Mind you, there are more than a few adults who haven’t really got their heads round it yet. Or just haven’t given it any thought.) At any rate I was “Scottish” by the time I moved back to Manchester as a student, and had to watch our defeat to Costa Rica with a room full of English lads in our halls of residence. They were about as sympathetic as you’d imagine, though it did rather serve me right for having made the most of our grand slam/Calcutta Cup win a couple of months earlier.
Over the following few weeks I watched England get absurdly carried away as their mob failed to beat Ireland and Holland, scraped their way past Egypt, were largely outplayed by Belgium and Cameroon and somehow fluked their way to a semi-final – where there luck ran out even though they actually played slightly better that time. They were a dull team in a poor tournament but you wouldn’t have known it from the domestic coverage or the fuss that followed the tournament, and is in a roundabout sort of way still going today. Don’t get me wrong, every country can be the same with a couple of wins behind them, and I’m old enough to remember Andy Cameron and Ally’s Army in 1978 – he really wasn’t kidding about winning the thing – so I know Scotland is by no means exempt but my subjective impression has always been that England becomes a particularly difficult nation to bear at such times. It’s not something that I find easy to explain and I’m not going to get too bogged down in trying, but one thing is increasingly noticeable – I often don’t need to try and explain because many English people (by which I mean, those who still think of themselves as such) understand it for themselves. In this respect England is, if not unique, then at least unusual, where patriotism has such negative connotations and so many are embarrassed by the form that support for their country takes.
The reasons for this are many and complex. You might see patriotism in England as being worse than most, or you might think it has the same overtones everywhere and it’s to England’s credit that they’re better a recognising it. Whatever analysis you prefer, there’s no doubt that being English is something that many people prefer to avoid trumpeting. I so often find that those who have a choice of nationalities, or some second team they can support, generally avail themselves of any excuse not to call themselves English. Which I suppose brings us back to me. But don’t worry, I’m not going to be donning American / Slovenian / Algerian shirts or actively wishing anyone ill. I might even start off with the best of intentions of hoping they do okay, though clearly if here looks to be any danger of them actually winning the thing then that’ll change.
Of course, all this would have had to be very different if I’d been any good at football. Luckily, I turned out to be useless but if in some sort of alternate reality I’d been brilliant, if I was international standard, then I wouldn’t have been allowed to play for Scotland. Didn’t matter how long I lived there – no bloodline. Instead, I’d have been able to play for South Africa, courtesy of a grandparent and despite never having been there, or I’d have had to swallow my pride and play for England. But now that’s all changed. As a result of the new agreement between the home nations I have, just this season, become officially Scottish – or at least officially eligible to play for them – as a result of having had more than five years schooling in the country. I might be in my late 30s now, but given the form of the team in recent years it might still be worth polishing my boots for Brazil 2014. Now there’s a thought to get the excitement back.