“Tom Boyd didn’t mean to score the own goal. It was a mistake. It was not his fault.“
My teacher told me this when I was 8 years old. She was trying to explain why we got beat by Brazil in the opening match of the 1998 World Cup.
This is my first memory of being a supporter of the Scotland men’s football team.
It was both a misleading introduction and a sign of things to come; misleading in that it suggested that Scotland being in a major tournament was thing that happened, a sign of the future in that it introduced us to that profoundly Scottish sporting concept: GLORIOUS FAILURE.
We all know glorious failure. It’s beating Holland in 1978 but failing to qualify from the group. It’s running two World Cup finalists to the brink in 2008 qualifying only to be undone by a dodgy free-kick. It’s time and time again showing up against the big teams and inexplicably struggling against the minnows. It’s missing out on the promised land by an Ill-fated flick of the leg.
It is glorious because we put up a fight and almost overcome all odds to even be competitive. It’s a failure because it stops at ‘almost’. The idea that Scotland could have beaten Brazil is simultaneously a source of pride and bitter regret. If only Tom had done something different… but wait a minute remember the primary school teacher – it wasn’t his fault. Fate could have conspired in such a way that the ball deflected in a different direction. Tom Boyd stretching, desperately trying to keep the World Champions at bay but being undone by luck. This is glorious failure. What could have been.
It’s the hope that kills you, as every Scottish fan knows. There have been so many points in the last ten years (usually just after a surprisingly accomplished away win against Slovenia or Lithuania) where I’ve thought ‘Yes, we’re on the right track, we’re starting to play some good football, we have some good young players, this is the start of something special. HERE WE’
And then we proceed to get humiliated by an Eastern European minnow and it’s back to despair and gloom.
But where does this gloom come from? Why should we expect Scotland to be good at football? It’s a weird situation. We are a very small country that shouldn’t have a hope in hell against the likes of France, England and the rest. On the other hand, our history in football suggests that we should be better than what we are currently. We have been to major tournaments, we have had great players in the past, we are mad about the sport, we practically invented it (ahem).
I think this combination means that we are stuck in an eternal limbo. We look around at nations with similar populations like Croatia, Denmark, even Ireland, and think ‘why can’t we have that’? But we also need to accept that for a small nation to be successful requires an unlikely combination of fortunate circumstances (a cohort of talented youngsters, suitable manager, luck of the draw etc.). It is the relentless tug of war between the ambition of hope and the realism of recent history that plagues the Scottish football fan.
So as we settle down in front of our TV tonight, we know that realism tells us that Serbia will win. Surely, right? They have better players who are better at football than ours.
But then we remember James McFadden, we remember him plucking an aimless ball out of the sky, we remember him turning round, looking up, and putting his foot through the ball, not because he thought it was likely that he would score a 40 yard worldie, but because… why not? It was incredibly unlikely that he would score, but it was possible, until it became inevitable. We remember these glorious moments where the impossible happens and we feel that euphoria that can only come when you support a team that rarely gives you these moments.
Scotland are not very good at football. We get this – being a supporter of a not-very-good team fills you with buckets of humility. But it’s not their fault, they will make mistakes and they will probably fail eventually but if you stick with them long enough they’ll give you those beautiful moments of glory that emerge from nothing.
(Repeat after me: James McFadden. Standing in the middle of the park. Looking at a hopeful ball in the sky… Anything can happen)
COME ON SCOTLAND!