The Beautiful Game No More


Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, November 27th 2010

I love Scotland. I love football. With all its imperfections and limitations I am fascinated by football in Scotland: its passions, history, traditions and why it matters so much.

The emotional spasm which has gripped Scottish football would be comic, were it not so serious, revealing some of the sore wounds and faultlines of Scottish society. This whole affair, like ‘the tartan tax’ stushie shows part of Scotland loves getting things completely out of proportion. And an even larger section cannot engage in a mature public debate with anyone of differing opinions.

This all began with the incident between Dundee United v. Celtic on October 17th when referee Dougie McDonald first awarded a penalty to Celtic, then changed his mind, and admitted to lying to Celtic manager Neil Lennon about how he and his assistant came to change their decision.

There we have it: a classic storm in a teacup, which doesn’t explain why all this has become something which looks and feels like a cultural war. First, there is the Celtic combativeness as seen in Neil Lennon, a young, hotheaded, immature manager. He has admitted to being ‘explosive’, but dared to mention Alex Ferguson’s passion in his defence. That was a bit of a mistake for Lennon is clearly no Ferguson: a manager who as well as competing, cares and looks after his players.

Second, along came John Reid who escalated matters further with even more ill-chosen, intemperate language, something Reid has form in, at least in the political arena.

All of this is motivated by years of bad feeling by Celtic towards the SFA, with this in turn shaped by the club’s grievance and persecution complex. Elements of Celtic FC  believe that it is still seen by some as an interloper, a non-Scottish institution, and an immigrant club to this day.

Shocking, incendiary-like remarks by the Catholic Church spokesperson Peter Kearney have added to this. Talking about an investigation into an alleged offensive email by Hugh Dallas, SFA head of referee development, Kearney spoke of this being ‘deeply offensive to the Catholic community of Scotland, and an incitement to anti-Catholic sectarianism’. Dallas is the person many see as Celtic’s ultimate target.

The Catholic Church has form here in hyperbole. There is an inverse relationship between the secularisation of society, decline in practising Catholics and numbers at mass, and the rise of an aggressive, confrontational language by the Catholic Church Media Office. Politicians of all persuasions tremble at the thought of being condemned by the Catholic Church; on Clause 28 its language was frankly shocking and on gay rights and any kind of enlightened sex education the church is living in the dark ages.

What is this all about and how do we move on? Scottish football takes a disproportionate part of our public attention and fills a vacuum in our public life which should be informed by more serious matters.

Our game is in decline, and this matters beyond football because it is one of the ways we measure our success as a society. Scotland used to achieve a certain international visibility on the football field. The Scotland v England ‘Auld Enemy’ matches used to obsess us. Then we had the five World Cups in a row and the nine European finals our teams reached: the latter an amazing feat for a nation our size and a higher success rate than France.

All of that is in the past. Celtic and Rangers find it impossible now to compete in the European Champions League, yet they are still big enough to strangle the Scottish game. Most Celtic and Rangers fans I know have no real interest in the Scottish game, any curiosity or love of the wider game and its history. They are obsessed with their own stuff and ‘the Old Firm’ rivalry.

Celtic grievance sits alongside Rangers paranoia and aggression. It is no accident they are called ‘the Old Firm’ for, as football scholar Bob Crampsey used to say, they are in it together. What he meant was that from the early 20th century these two clubs have acted as an organised conspiracy against the wider interests of the game. Together they encouraged and maintained their sectarian traditions to maximise and maintain each team’s core support to the detriment of society.

A solution to this is difficult to imagine. It won’t come from asking referees to disclose which teams they support. Such a move would remove any sense of trust and be an attack on their professionalism. Why should they be singled out in public life as the one group we don’t trust? What about football commentators? Or political commentators? Where would we stop and who would want – or dare to – referee a Scottish game?

We have to look at the perennial problem of the structural imbalance of the Scottish game which grows worse year by year. It really is laughable for Celtic fans to think that there is a conspiracy targeting them. Everything about the history and structures of the game would tell you that the only conspiracy worth talking about is the way the game is run for the benefit of the Glasgow big two against the rest.

This then takes us to the much wider and more serious issue than football: the manner, style and language we in which we conduct national debate and conversation. Something is going way wrong here across our society, which is aided by changes in politics, media, culture, and in the hustle and bustle of life with a growing lack of tolerance, a propensity to shout and hector, and an absence of empathy or understanding for opposing views.

Scotland has been in the past badly scarred by anti-Catholic sectarianism and discrimination, and the wounds have not completely healed. And yet there is now in our society a new problem: of a social conservatism and authoritarianism which is fed by people once oppressed who have now become oppressors.

Do we really want to live in a society shaped by denunciation, the culture of the echo chamber, and people talking past one another reliving and reimagining various past historic wrongs? And if most of us don’t, as I think we don’t, do we have the courage to take on the demagogues and authoritarians, who come from each and every part of our national life?

I would like to think we do, and if so the first steps in maturing will be in telling the hot heads to turn the volume down, whether they be of a religious or a football faith. And lets remember that ultimately the people’s game is that – only a game.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Gerry Hassan.
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