If the most recent season in the SPL is anything to go by it’s quite easy to think that in Scotland, and perhaps more specifically Glasgow, football is somehow bad these days. Particularly with the way the various media outlets seem to be going out of their way to analyse, dissect and draw attention to the re-emerging spectre of sectarianism.
One might even get the impression that Rangers and Celtic fans are constantly at each other’s throats, and that perhaps wearing the wrong colours in the wrong place at any time could lead to violence. So much so, in fact, that it can be quite easy to forget just how much football is able to bring people together. I’m not just talking about on a national level here – most football fans will band together and set aside their differences for the support of their national team – but I mean on a social level.
For those of you who are not in the know, if you’re male and Scottish you will almost certainly have been brought up in and exposed to a very football centric culture. Kicking a ball around, whether you were any good at it or not, was and still is to many children and this was no different for me and just about everyone that lived around me when I was younger. Football is so ingrained in Scottish, nay, BRITISH culture that it becomes a default topic of conversation in awkward social situations. As a social point of contact it’s near universal in its application.
I’d forgotten a lot of this. I hadn’t played football in a good couple of years, partially out of lack of confidence, partially due to lack of fitness, and whenever I have played since exiting my teens it had been in work or family situations.
My fitness is getting better through working out and in order to maintain it I decided to try to put together a football team with as many folk as I know. Harder than you may think, given that most of my friends are music fiends and aren’t really into football. Undeterred, I assembled as many people as possible then a friend and I arranged a small kick about on an Astroturf pitch in Kelvingrove Park this past Wednesday. The result was, well, inspiring.
Ahh youth. I had forgotten the unwritten code involved in unscheduled, unorganised kickabouts: If you and your friends were in the middle of a game, or about to start a game, on an empty public football pitch, anyone who comes along and looks like they fancy playing would be allowed to join in, even if no one in your company knew who this person was. A tacit kind of social contract, if you will, that came inclusive with the usage of any communal sports space.
That happened a lot when I was younger but somehow I’d forgotten all about it. We agreed to get things underway on said football pitch at 6pm. I can’t really explain why I expected this public football pitch to be free, but in the same sense there was no surprise when it wasn’t empty. A friend of mine advertised the game on gumtree and it transpired that a couple of guys had seen that and just randomly arrived because they wanted a game of football. Perhaps the first time I’ve ever seen something like this happen.
Two men were named as captains (in a completely arbitrary fashion, I must add) and were instructed to pick a team from the players available. I arrived with five other bodies and we were split up accordingly with no accounting for skill, position, race, allegiance or hair style. Something youthful stirred in me; a kind of reckless sporty abandon that I hadn’t felt since I was younger. Here I was in a team filled mostly with people I don’t know, all of whom just wanted to play football.
I, with my Celtic shirt on, in a team with people in Rangers colours. We got things under way and before long a strange kind of respectful, energetic, passionate fire ignited in every person on the ptich. We wanted to make sure our team scored more than the other. Not to “win” per se, because you’re not really winning anything if the game doesn’t mean anything. No pride, no glory, no points, trophies, medals were to be awarded that day – people just wanted to play football and make a brief, but intimate connection with like minded folks.
The most remarkable thing is that people kept arriving. Some in groups, some in twos, others on their own, each one of them placing their bag at the side of the pitch and standing waiting for the next break in play before they were signalled by one of the captains on which team to join. Occasionally my opposition were a man up, occasionally we were, but eventually the number of people on the pitch surpassed 11 on each side. The idea of having more than 11 men on each side is ridiculous, but it was made even more ridiculous when you consider that the football pitch we were using was only just slightly larger than the average 7-a-side pitch.
We turned up with the intention of playing a little 5-a-side game with the folks we had managed to amass through our various social networks; a kind of training session so we could see who would be up for forming an actual 5-a-side team to play in a league every Wednesday night. But what happened in reality was that the aforementioned tacit rule, the unwritten, unsaid agreement that Scottish men of football heritage seem to be acutely and innately aware of from their formative years, was brought into force. Over the course of an hour and a half we ended up with so many people that we had to stop play, pick new captains and split into three teams of seven. Where before the only rules were the ones that were dictated by boundaries of the pitch, a time limit/goal limit was set (10 minutes per game or the first team to three – whichever came first) and a mini tournament began.
And people kept arriving in search of football.
However by this point 8pm had rolled around and I decided to make good my escape. The post-mortem of performance was thus: must try harder in the future. Being a goalkeeper (a position I literally grew into in my youth because I was taller than most of my friends at an earlier age) it’d been a long, long time since I dived around and I must admit, it doesn’t come as naturally to me as it once did but what I was also left with was a feeling of being strangely impressed by humanity. Football really did bring people together. There was no malice to be found on the pitch regardless of footballing allegiance. People just wanted to play they didn’t care who with, just as long as those people wanted to play football too. There remained respect between peers and there was no foul play of any kind. In fact I’m struggling to remember a tackle knocking any one from their feet, never mind a proper sliding tackle and there wasn’t a single incident that caused a free kick to be awarded or called for play to be stopped.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that football brings out the ugliness in certain parts of society in Scotland these days. Hell, I’m even guilty of thinking so myself because I still felt the need to cover my Celtic jersey up when I left the pitch. However, through all the media scandal, the headlines and perceived ill will that some football fans project upon our wonderful game, there still exists, within those truly passionate about playing the game, a respect for it, a desire for it and a truly transformative quality about it. One that cuts through existing social stigmas and inflammatory headlines.
So, football is toxic in Scotland these days? Hardly. It’s still bringing people together in the most heart warming and inspiring of ways, and I think it’s pretty damn cool that a sphere of vinyl can still bring anonymous strangers together through their love of the Beautiful Game.