The Scotch First Minister, Jack McConnell, will doubtless be huddled before a television screen today, dressed in a Portugal football shirt and perhaps munching salted cod, out of respect. An awful lot of his compatriots will be doing the same thing: the Treaty of Windsor, signed with Portugal in 1386, may well be the longest lasting alliance in English military history, but it will be superseded by the less formal, 90-minute Treaty of Gelsenkirchen between Scotland and Portugal. If the Portuguese win their World Cup football game against England, there will be immense jubilation north of the border — free drinks all round, the waving of the Portuguese flag out of every bar and car, the consumption of vast amounts of bacalhau with ‘neeps and tatties’, symbolising the union of Europe’s two most limited and primitive cuisines. If England win, however, the infuriated Scotch will most likely go on the rampage, attacking any convenient English target. A visceral hatred of England is now almost compulsory if you are a member of the Scotch race. And it is reinforced by the Scotch news media and the comments from prominent Scotch politicians who, like Mr McConnell, see votes in deriding the English with their own little version of Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’: It’s no go your Frank Lampard, It’s no go your Rooney/ All we want is a tin of sardines and a quick Portuguese victory.
This loathing is not returned. The Scotch football team labours towards humiliation against the likes of the Faroe Islands or Rockall (I forget which) and scarcely a hair is turned south of Jedburgh. I suppose utter indifference is, in its way, more slighting than outright hatred — but it is not an indifference occasioned by good old-fashioned racism. Simply, nobody down here really cares. Why then, in 2006, should the Scotch people care so much? Is the relationship between us, Scotch and English, not, at the very least, fair and equable and cognisant of history? Instead of oppressing them, these days we reach into our wallets and subsidise them. Instead of ruling over them, we let them run most of their own affairs, without complaining at their manifest incompetence, and even allow one of their number to control our national finances. Perhaps this is the key and we should look to Freud or Lacan for an answer: subconsciously, the Scotch yearn to be oppressed by us and wish they were still a subject race. In which case, hell, Jimmy — just say the word, we’ll be there for you.
I read a delightfully disingenuous piece of Scotch apologia from a chap called Ed Wood in the Daily Telegraph. It is not a hatred of the English that motivates your average jock to cheer for whichever country we are playing, he argued, but rather a laudable sympathy for the underdog. Well, in footballing terms it is not very easy to know who is the underdog between England and Portugal, although I doubt that the matter will be debated for too long in Sauchiehall Street. Nor do I expect the Scotch people to readily drape themselves in the flag of St George if we come up against Germany or Argentina.
On the football field, Scotland has long punched way above its weight for a nation of just five million people — and its record against England is, for such a tiny, depopulated country, extraordinarily good; they raise their game at the prospect of stuffing the English. But the sad thing — and I mean that without irony or superciliousness — is that the tide of history is against them. I suspect that never again will they compete in the World Cup finals, which is a shame, if only because as an Englishman I have thoroughly enjoyed their previous campaigns.
Football has changed enormously in the last 15 years and particularly rapidly in the last eight or nine. It has become a truly global phenomenon and these days pretty much no country can claim to be untouched by it. The relationship between footballing success and size of population is quite obvious and proven. In the past, Scotland could get itself into the World Cup because a sizeable proportion of countries with very large populations had no affection for the game — but all that has changed. South Korea, Japan, Nigeria, the USA, Iran — these are all new footballing powers which will soon be joined by a plethora of others, not least China and a host of other rapidly expanding developing countries, particularly in Africa. The scope for a nation comprising just five million people to compete at such a high level diminishes by the year. Scotland’s Fifa world ranking used to hover at around the 18–30 mark (which would suggest a right to participate in the finals). In the last five years it has hovered between the 60–90 mark. In the future, World Cup finals will be contested by nations with large populations; this is already happening, despite the anomaly presented by the Central American countries (such as Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica) which are, for complex and not entirely uncorrupt reasons, afforded preferential qualifying conditions by Fifa.
The way out for the Scotch is to follow the lesson of the Irish and select players for their national team who are not, by any stretch of the imagination, actually Scottish. Most of us have taken a weekend trip to Oban or at least eaten in a traditional Aberdeen Angus Steak House — both of which qualifications, I believe, allow one to consider Scotland an adopted country under Fifa rules and thus play football for them. At least one fairly eminent football power has already adopted this strategy to considerable effect — in the current World Cup, no fewer than eight of the Germany squad were born in places which could only be considered ‘German’ if you were of a very particular political disposition — i.e., Upper Silesia, the Sudetenland, Austria, Alsace Lorraine, Bohemia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and so on.
But none of this will address the underlying and very real social and cultural problem, as the Guardian might put it. What can be done to persuade the Scotch people to treat the rest of us with inclusivity and respect? Nothing at all, I fear. Eighty years of full-blown independence has not engendered, within the Irish, an affection for their cousins across the sea. There will be as many Portugal flags in Dublin today as there will be in Glasgow. And the knowledge that the English habitually cheer for Ireland and Scotland when they’re playing real foreigners only seems to inflame the Celts even more. There’s nothing to be done, really. But hopefully we’ll get by.