by Bob Cassells 

So we’re not racists then.  Thank God for that.  Had me worried there.  Mind you, fresh fruit and the Tartan Army?  Didn’t ring true, did it?

The act of throwing a banana onto the playing pitch in the direction of a black Brazilian football player in a Scotland/Brazil football match is clearly puerile in the extreme, but in the modern world the ramifications of such behaviour are obviously significant.

Fortunately, the true culprit – a teenage German tourist (you couldn’t make it up) – has been identified and the reputation of the Tartan Army is restored.  Or, at least, it is for those few who pay any attention beyond the scandalised headlines that initially winged their way around the world.

‘Bananagate’ will doubtless go down as a footnote in the record of the rehabilitation of the Scottish football fan, but there are those of us old enough to remember pre-rehabilitation.

Scottish football fans used to be ‘drunken thugs’ whose appearance caused shopkeepers to board up their windows, transport workers to refuse to staff buses and underground trains and respectable people to stay indoors.  And with some cause.  Drink was always taken in industrial quantities and behaviour was frequently violent, offensive and unsanitary.

So what changed?  Well, of course, we stopped drinking … Eh, no, wait a minute.  Anyone who has attended a Scotland match recently will be able to attest that alcohol still plays a huge part in the experience for a large number of Scotland fans.  Television coverage of the Brazilian game showed one Scotland fan who was sufficiently ‘refreshed’ that he slept through the entire game.  And, yes, I do understand the potential benefits of such an approach to watching the Scotland team.

Although I’ve never really seen the attraction myself, I must admit.  I’ve always felt that unless I concentrate really, really hard, the chances of Scotland making a complete mess of things are hugely increased, so I’ve got to pay absolutely close attention otherwise it’ll all go badly wrong.  And, as we all know, taking alcohol reduces the powers of concentration … Yes, yes, I know. I really should resume the (non-alcoholic) medication.  And learn to concentrate better.

Anyway.  Not drink then.  The average Scottish football fan still consumes enough alcohol prior to a Scotland match to float several battleships and probably a decommissioned aircraft carrier or two.

And yet the perception of fans’ behaviour has altered from ‘riot’ to ‘carnival’.  What happened?  Well, you have to go back to the 1970s and 80s where you come across Margaret Thatcher and Jimmy Hill, strange bedfellows – and there’s a mental image you don’t want to dwell on for too long – and twin hammers of the Scots who helped forge the current identity of the Tartan Army.

As modern ‘civil nationalists’ (I just made that up), I know we’re uncomfortable with anything that makes us seem to be anti-English.  We all have friends and relations (occasionally one-and-the same) across the border and we’re not out to do down the English, only to promote that which benefits Scotland and the Scots, but I suspect even now there’s something about being told what to do by English politicians and media ‘stars’ which makes our collective hackles rise.

It certainly did back in the day.  The sight of TV commentator Jimmy Hill grinning about the latest Scotland team’s disaster coupled with the sound of ‘Maggie’ telling us that it was all in our best interests as another industry was obliterated, encouraged a strange re-invention of the Scottish football fan.

From offensive, scary yob he (almost always ‘he’ back then) became friendly, kind-to-children-and-animals good-time guy.  It was an almost conscious decision.  A deliberate attempt to re-define ourselves as ‘not English’, not just part of a greater Britain where we were an ingredient in the UK cocktail – the kilted Jocks along with the bluff Yorkshire men, swaggering Liverpudlians, and the cheery Cockneys, Scotty dogs added to the mix of soldiers in bearskins, Big Ben and red buses.

And, of course, we were clearly nothing like the English football fans, whose behaviour was so appalling at that time that they were viewed across the world as modern day Visigoths, but without the charm or personal hygiene.  Always useful to have someone to look down on from the moral high ground.

So the Tartan Army was born: friendly, peaceful (as in ‘non-violent’ not ‘quiet’) and ready to be pals with everyone.  So it has been since then; kilt, Scotland shirt, Glengarry, big Scotland flag and a wide grin, you can spot members of the Tartan Army a mile off.

And not racist.  In fact, inclusive with no barriers of race, religion (and that’s not to be sniffed at in the world of Scottish football) or gender.  Lots of lassies in the TA now.  So, aside from the unfounded allegations of some huffy Brazilian teenager, we’re sorted – the Scotland football fan is a proud representative of the country with an unblemished record and a reputation second to none.

Well, not quite.

Not everyone in the world of Scottish football is a big fan of the Tartan Army.  Some still take exception to the sight of grown men who insist that lifting their kilts to wave their bits at passers-by is offensive and not just part of some ethnic expression of identity.  And a drunk throwing up in the gutter is still a drunk throwing up in the gutter, even if they are wearing Tartan Army regalia.

But more than that, there are some who cringe at the very idea of the Tartan Army because they see them as justifying failure, as ignoring the poor performances of the Scotland football team as an excuse for a party.  And they may have a point.

When does an image become too easy?  Too much a posture not earned?

Does it matter?  My wife tells me that I see the entire world in terms of football.  She may not be intending to be entirely complimentary with this observation.  Yet I believe there is a significant truth buried here amongst the detritus of the back pages: our identity, how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us, matters.

It matters economically, socially and personally.  We are defensive, aggressive, cocky, confident, self-assured, or creative dependent on how we see ourselves.  We relate to our fellow Scots either positively or negatively depending on how we see each other.  People outwith Scotland make decisions about their interactions with us dependent on their perception of who we are.

In the parallel universe of football this is instinctively understood.  It’s a world of caricatures and exaggerations, simpler than the real world and therefore easier to engage with, and in this world Scotland has created a place for itself.  Friendly, extravagant, caring – not a bad face to put on for the global community, whatever the Tartan Army’s detractors say.

Over the next few weeks the real world will be full of questions about Scottish identity, culminating in a knock-out final on the 5th of May.  The mainstream media will doubtless be lifting the caricatures and exaggerations from the back pages and recycling them as political commentary.  But the question which we will all need to answer is a vitally important one: how do we see ourselves?  What kind of Scots do we want to be?  What kind of Scotland do we want to live in?

Whatever the outcome, one thing’s for sure: yes, we have no bananas.

Bob Cassells