McIlvanney’s World Cup

William McIlvanney, who died in 2015, left us one of the most illuminating pieces of writing on the experience of being part of the Tartan Army in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, in Surviving The Shipwreck, a collection of essays by the noted novelist, short story writer and poet. This extract from the chapter Journeys of the Magi was written before Scotland’s final game against The Netherlands.

By William McIlvanney

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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The hurt goes deeper than a one-all draw with Iran. That tedious game where everybody seemed to be moving through three feet of water has merely obliged the fans to acknowledge what they have reluctantly suspected since Saturday. If Peru presented us with the corpse of Scottish football, Iran has signed the death certificate.
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Passion, of course, is an essential part of the game. Like theatre, the excitement of football begins in the preparedness of spectators to give themselves up to the temporary importance of what is happening. Like theatre, football allows the cathartic expressions of strong feelings in a safe and stylised context.

Travelling hopefully from Scotland to Argentina isn’t half as good as arriving. Those of us who have made the journey overland, the Panzer division of Ally’s Tartan Army, have found ourselves disarmed and captured instantly by the irresistible generosity of the Argentinian people. Advice, lifts, telephone numbers, meals and lodgings are thrown at us like confetti at a wedding. Round every corner, you bump into Santa Claus. Everybody who decided to play the long odds of trying to make it on the cheap to Córdoba finds that he has won the pools.

Some permutations used have been pretty bizarre. They include an interesting system devised by two original thinkers from Tarbert, Ewan Robertson and Jim Blair. Setting out last November, they came to Córdoba via Scandinavia, New York and Miami. They cycled from Bogotá almost to Lima, ruining three wheels on the way. 

Not all the punters are Scottish. The recipients of the Argentinian blank cheque include an Englishman and an Irishman from Vancouver, two Geordies from Australia, and an 18-year-old from Birmingham. And not all the punters are men. Annie Johnston is here with her husband, Brian, whom she married in Kirkwall on April 21. The omens for the marriage are propitious. It seems a sensible arrangement to bring your wife on the honeymoon.

As varied as the journeys are the people who have made them. Jim Fisher from Cardonald in Glasgow, a teacher of handicapped children who was side-tracked from looking for work in America, is mature and thoughtful and gives the impression that he got his last surprise when the midwife slapped him. He has found the whole trip comparatively easy. But then he seems a fair representative of that particular type of Scotsman who might raise one eyebrow at an earthquake, presumably keeping the other one for when God introduces himself.

The Heinz factor that unifies all these varieties is simply what happens when you arrive. You are swamped with hospitality. No matter where you come from or how you got here. If you are supporting Scotland, you are in. Here a tartan bunnet is better than a Barclay Card.

The ultimate expression of this occurred when the Scottish team arrived. A bus-load of supporters were allowed to join the cavalcade into Alta Gracia, 30 kilometres from Córdoba and where the Scottish team are quartered in the Sierras Hotel. Thousands of people line the streets, cheering and reaching up to the windows of our bus to shake hands and ask for autographs. Bemused supporters scribbled their names on bits of paper and found them received like precious gifts. For well over an hour, everybody was a star. The equality of players and supporters extended into the hotel. While Ally MacLeod read out room numbers, people with tartan tammies and lion rampants round their shoulders listened as if waiting for their own names to be called.

Later, when we spilled out into the streets, the dream sequence went on unbroken. In a bar a crowd of people crushed round our table, the back rows standing on chairs to watch the miraculous way in which Scotsmen raise glasses of beer to their lips. Names were asked, addresses given, gifts presented.

Dave Ednie, tall and handsome in Highland regalia, with the kind of blue eyes that look as if they could stand in for laser beams, was besieged more than most. He expressed it for everybody.

‘A fitter fae Edinburgh. You spend all year up to your armpits in grease – and then this,’ he said.

Back in Córdoba, we have continued up to our armpits in friendliness. The Scottish contingent has its headquarters at 136 Dean Furnes, a restaurant near Plaza San Martin where cut-price meals and bottle of beer are dispensed. A man called Miguel E. Skrzpek, who makes an anthill look lethargic, arranges special concessions for Scotsmen.

More are arriving every day. They will discover that in the fans’ World Cup the Scots appear to be well in the lead. The only niggling worry is that some of our fans may possess, like some of our teams in the past, that Scottish talent for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Already a couple of abuses of hospitality have occurred, the sort of thing that in Glasgow would have qualified the perpetrators for minor plastic surgery.

If such instances remain as trivial and isolated as they have done, then the World Cup will have proven itself to be truly a way to bring people happily together. If not, then it is impossible to avoid the thought that people as capable of such spontaneous warmth and overwhelming affection as the Argentines might also command other kinds of spontaneity.

The journey, it begins to seem, might have been scripted by Cervantes. Those of us who have travelled from New York to Córboda using anything to get here from Greyhound buses to a Victorian train across the Bolivian Altiplano, like Don Quixote changing crazy horses, feel that we have been hurrying merely to confront our own illusions. Our destination finds bleak reality behind them.

Wakening up to face facts has brought some fierce reactions. In our own small group of six hopeful travellers, the most severely affected has been Alister Steele, who has from the start approached the trip as if each new country were no more fascinating than a stepping-stone, the only purpose of which was to lead to the next one. All he wanted was to arrive. The defeat of Scotland by Peru taught him harshly where it was he had come to. He left the stadium in tears and gave away his ticket for the game against Iran, as well as every tartan accoutrement anyone would take. Charlie Gibson was more cautious. He waited until Scotland had drawn Iran before deciding to join Alister in leaving for home as soon as possible.

At Córboda on Wednesday when Scotland drew with Iran the most intense confrontation of the day happened after the game when some Scottish fans got as near as they could to the exit-tunnel and hurled abuse at their own team. It was a moment both futile and ugly, like a schizophrenic having a quarrel with himself. Men who had travelled thousands of miles turned against their own reason for coming and shouted obscenities at it. Between the baffled faces of the players and the baffled rage of their supporters a Lion Rampant fell to the ground like something too heavy for either to hold.

The hurt goes deeper than a one-all draw with Iran. That tedious game where everybody seemed to be moving through three feet of water has merely obliged the fans to acknowledge what they have reluctantly suspected since Saturday. If Peru presented us with the corpse of Scottish football, Iran has signed the death certificate. As far as many of the supporters are concerned, the cause of death was cardiac failure. Time and again people have told me here that defeat is all right (‘we’ve had a lot of practice’) but not defeat without honourable commitment and effort. The suggestion is always to the effect that the amount of heart shown by the Scottish team in both games wouldn’t fill a contact lens. That charge is all the more severe when set against the commitment shown by the Scottish supporters in just being there. Some have put themselves in hock for months ahead. Others, like Robbie Sterry, a 19-year-old from Perth who has less than $50 left, will find it a hard way home through the gloom.

The pain they feel is a bit like that of unrequited love. One supporter, a huge young man from Aberdeen called Raymond, a kind of one-man supporters’ club, epitomised it to me. At the beginning of the game against Iran he was waving his Saltire and leading a section of the crowd in singing. Fifteen minutes before half-time I found him crying in his beer behind the stand. In the second-half he was back in full voice, while the torpor of the match made no reply.

Such demented hunting for a response to brute events has been shared to some extent by all of us. After Wednesday’s match, the Sorocabana, a bar in the Plaza San Martin, which is now a temporary Scottish colony, became a trauma-ward for Scottish psyches. Normally undemonstrative men embraced, as if trying to be a bandage for each other’s pain. Dead-eyed conversation would erupt gradually into Flower Of Scotland and We’ll Support You Evermore. Frequently after the songs they would subside again, like people recovering from demoniac possession. Having just finished singing, one man said to me, ‘Who needs to support that load of rubbish?’

Charlie Gibbons gave a German supporter his ticket for the game against Holland at Mendoza and danced among tables with Louise. Willie from Kirkcaldy thought we should pay more attention to politics. Frederick William Turner, ‘Topsy’ for short, a coloured Scotsman from Dumfries, refused to mitigate his exuberance for any result. The Argentinians helped, as they sang along with us. One even reminded me of their own débâcle in 1966.

The statistic of seven women to every man in Córboda was another source of soothing. Since the Scots arrived, beautiful girls have turned up in bars asking questions like, ‘You know where Robert is? He has the red hair.’ Wednesday night was no exception. I’m still haunted by the bizarre image of a handsome Scotsman explaining with great linguistic difficulty the exact nature of the Scottish team’s failure to a stunning blonde, while her eyes ate him whole.

But while the camaraderie of the supporters was real, the pain of their alienation from the team they came to support remained extreme. They are left with a deep affection for the spontaneous generosity and kindness of the Argentine people and a sense that nevertheless they have been cheated of their true purpose in coming here.

It is mathematically possible that Scotland may still qualify. Even if we do, the feeling will remain that a betrayal has taken place. The sense of betrayal will not lie in the failure itself but in the spectacular inadequacy of our attempt to avoid it. On Wednesday most of the blame was being heaped on the man some have rechristened, in that gallows humour honed on constant failure, Ally McClown. ‘You promised everything, you gave us nothing,’ somebody shouted.

It is perhaps a particularly Scottish trait, assumptive optimism. It is a belief among fans that it has led to the arrogance of inadequate preparation. It has left us with the question that was being chanted sardonically in the Sorocobana on Wednesday night: ‘Oh, why are we so bad?’

It seems possible that the answer to the endlessly arid rotation of euphoria and despair in the Scottish support lies not in changing the team, but in changing the fans. For years the terracings of grounds where Scotland have played have been covered by Scottish magi who seem to need nothing less than to see their lives given meaning on a football pitch. This time our stable in Córdoba has revealed to us nothing but a not unfamiliar pile of manure.

Yet like someone whose arm has been long since amputated we insist on continuing to feel the pain. Last week in Córdoba a Scottish fan, so wild in Highland attire he made Harry Lauder look like an Englishman, told me at great length how the Scottish team had robbed him of his identity and made him a laughing-stock in the town. It would have been facile to suggest a pin-stripe suit. His pain was real. It is its reality which is depressing. As someone who in Córdoba has shared that experience to a degree unprecedented for me, perhaps because it took me six weeks to get here, I find the intensity of my own initial reactions to the performances of a football team disconcertingly extreme.

Passion, of course, is an essential part of the game. Like theatre, the excitement of football begins in the preparedness of spectators to give themselves up to the temporary importance of what is happening. Like theatre, football allows the cathartic expressions of strong feelings in a safe and stylised context.

What worries me about the Scottish supporters’ relationship to the game is our tendency to want to storm the stage, the apparent willingness of so many of us to make our lives just an adjunct of our chosen form of theatre. Like inhabitants of some weird psychological outback, we succumb to a naively total identification with the performance that is roughly equivalent to wanting to shoot the actor who plays Richard the Third. If the World Cup is the West End of football, the Scottish game is a crude and ineffectual form of group therapy in which players and fans desperately improvise towards some mutually acceptable sense of themselves. Instead of being a natural extension of our lives, an expression of ourselves, it remains the nexus of a stubborn neurosis.

One possible cure might have been success. Winning a World Cup could presumably allow us to admit that it is only a game and that after all the Scottish Messiah isn’t going to appear wearing a 9 on his jersey. But the Argentine experience should remind us that if we’re going to wait that long, we could all be doolally enough, before it happens, to make playing headers with a concrete ball the national sport.

Failure looks like the only teacher who will turn up regularly. In the absence of very much else, maybe we can learn from our mistakes. For years now we have been hitching a wagon loaded with the bizarre furniture of Scottishness to a team of ants in the hope of going somewhere. Every time they die in harness, we renew them. Now it’s surely time to accept irrevocably the alternative conclusion that we’re asking football to do more than the nature of the thing allows.

There are already isolated signs that some Scots are newly anxious to release the game from its current megalomaniac status and let it revert to being a pleasant part of our lives. Many times in the past couple of weeks people have suggested to me that they will never support Scotland in the same way again. These include supporters who have travelled overland, some who took a package-deal, and others – the kind of punters that might bet on a dead horse – who didn’t arrive until after Scotland’s first three games.

I’m not suggesting they’re going to take up politics. But all of them gave the very strong impression that it would be a long time before they could invest a few games of football with the same kind of exaggerated importance again. I think for such an evaluation to become more general would be healthy both for the team and the supporters.

In my own case, the forcible bursting of my oxygen-tent of preoccupation with Scotland’s chances has here, apart from a brief period of strangulated adjustment, left me glad to inhabit a wider context again. With your own team out of the reckoning, it’s at least easier to take in the wider connotations of what is happening here, perhaps encapsulated most effectively and worryingly in the recent scene where an Argentinian crowd had to be prevented by the police from attacking the Mad Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, that group of people who demonstrate regularly in Buenos Aires against the unexplained disappearance of relatives. The fact that the motivation of those who objected to the demonstrators was that a bad impression was being given of Argentina, may indicate the extent to which this World Cup has been conceived as an exercise in press relations.

Such realisations cannot distract from the overwhelming warmth of the Argentinian people in the streets nor, glimpsed as they are in the passing, can they be more at the moment than misgivings. But at least to be aware of them, to be conscious that not all the shadows over the games come from the floodlights, has to be healthy.

Of course, one lucid interval doesn’t make a cure. It may be that by the time Wembley comes round we will all have suffered a complete relapse. Certainly, I will want to be there as well, God and the Clydesdale Bank willing, in Spain in 1982. After all, football remains simply the best ball game in the world.

But apart from changes to the team-formation, I wouldn’t mind seeing some significant tactical rethinking among the Scottish fans, so that if things go wrong – which in the context of Scottish football is almost a synonym for ‘according to plan’ – they have a stronger case of identity to call on than can be entirely contained in a dark blue jersey. Even supporters in a crisis need to be able to field substitutions. 

From Surviving the Shipwreck by William McIlvanney, Mainstream, 1991

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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