Football for good
I had one of those conversations recently that occur every once in a while. I was talking to one of those self-righteous sort of guys and I happened to mention the effect the current health crisis is having on football. He went into a monologue about how it would be good for Scotland if football never resumed. ‘Every time Celtic plays Rangers’ he began, ‘there is a spike in domestic violence. It brings out the worst in people. It fosters bigotry and prejudice…. Blah blah blah.’ You get the picture; he was no fan of football. I told him of the great enjoyment playing or watching football brought to millions and that Scotland’s uneasy relationship with alcohol was a more likely cause of domestic violence than two football teams.
You often get a certain middle-class snootiness about football from some people; the implication that it’s a sport for the uneducated plebs is never far away. It did get me thinking though about the slogan used by Celtic’s charity foundation, ‘football for good,’ and wondering if the game in Scotland is actually a positive force in our society.
The enforced shutdown of football we are enduring due to the Corona pandemic has demonstrated how much many people miss the game. It is a huge part of the lives of hundreds of thousands of Scots who go to games, watch on TV or spend hours discussing it on social media. Football has played a key role in the social lives of so many. Friendships flourished on the terraces and many a good night was had at football social clubs and supporters club dances up and down the country.
Football has burrowed deep in the psyche of so many ordinary Scots. The can tell you of great games, players and goals scored and who they were with at the time. Football gives so many a comradeship and sense of community that can be lacking in our modern, individualistic society. It can raise you to heights or drag you to the depths of despair. It is a metaphor for life itself with all its triumphs, disasters and occasional moments of astonishing drama. For those of us who understand and love the game, it is an ingrained part of our life. An heirloom handed on by fathers, grandfathers, mothers or some other equally besotted fan.
It may be hard to explain to people ignorant of the game the joy a Celtic fan takes at a last minute winner in a big game. Or a Hearts fan’s joy at beating their biggest rivals in a cup final or indeed a Hibs fan’s ecstasy when David Gray’s header exploded into the net on a sunny day in 2016 to end 114 years of waiting for a Scottish Cup win. Fans of all clubs will be able to tell you of such moments. How can those with no love for the game understand the artistry and balletic elegance of Lio Messi, Jimmy Johnstone or George Best? How can they comprehend the fairy story of a club born into an impoverished immigrant community rising not only to be the finest side in Europe but also do it playing football that was beautiful to behold?
The great Scottish sports writer Hugh McIlvanney once wrote or the magnificent Real Madrid side which won the European Cup at Hampden in 1960 in the following words…
“Fittingly, the great Glasgow stadium responded with the loudest and most sustained ovation it has given to non-Scottish athletes. The strange emotionalism that overcame the huge crowd as the triumphant Madrid team circled the field at the end, carrying the trophy they have held since its inception, showed they had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing sport played to its ultimate standards.”
That is how football, played to its highest expression can move the ordinary fan. McIlvanney, who once said that George Best had ‘feet as sensitive as a pick-pocket’s hands,’ was perhaps best at bringing his descriptive powers to bear on football, once said of Jimmy Johnstone…
‘Johnstone will not be remembered simply as a footballer of electrifying virtuosity, though he was certainly that, with a genius for surreally intricate dribbling so extraordinary it is impossible for me to believe any other player before or since quite matched his mastery of tormenting, hypnotic ball control at the closest of quarters. As I have acknowledged in the past, other wingers might fairly be rated more reliably devastating (Garrincha, George Best, Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews are obvious candidates) but none of them besieged opponents with such a complex, concentrated swirl of deceptive manoeuvres or ever conveyed a more exhilarating sense of joy in working wonders with the ball.’
Days when the clubs treated fans like cattle and milked them for as much as they could without giving anything back to the community are long gone. Celtic has a long and illustrious record of supporting charitable causes. From its very inception it has been much more than a football club and heavily involved in its community. Indeed Celtic is part of that wider community and from the penny dinner tables of 1888 to the work of the Celtic Charity Foundation the club has never forgotten its roots. The Foundation Celtic has raised almost £20m for the causes it holds dear. Their focus (HELP) is to work to improve Health, Equity, Learning & Poverty issues for some of our most needy folk. The Foundation has a dedicated Learning Centre in Celtic Park and has worked with 29 Secondary and over 100 Primary schools and it raises funds from ordinary fans via the annual badge day and a whole host of activities people engage in to fund the Foundations work.
Celtic isn’t the only football club to engage in such activities as many clubs, large and small are heavily involved in helping their local community. Stenhousemuir FC may be struggling to survive these difficult times but their Community Help Initiative has seen 80 volunteers helping vulnerable people in the community with everything from shopping to dog walking. The Chairman mans the phones with others and helps direct help to the elderly, infirm and others in need. That is what a football club should be like; supporting the community which in turn supports the club. The bigger clubs may be capable of helping out at a greater level than clubs like Stenhousemuir but it doesn’t detract from the admirable things they are doing. As Karl Marx once said; ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’
Make no mistake about it, some of our smaller clubs will struggle to survive the current crises but still they give to others, still they reach out to those in need. I hope our footballing community remembers them when this is all over.
So in answer to my ignorant acquaintance who thought Scottish football should just stay closed when the Corona pandemic is over I say; you don’t know what you’re talking about. Football plays an important social, sporting, cultural and altruistic role in Scottish society. Yes it has some idiots hanging onto its coat-tails for their own warped agendas but for the vast majority it is game they love for its excitement, its drama, its moments of artistry and its sense of community. What else can make a normally composed Scot scream at the top of their lungs or hug a complete stranger? What else can have us debating great games, goals or players decades after the event? Only the game we love gets us that way and it’s woven into our hearts forever.
For those who understand that no explanation is needed. For those who don’t, no explanation is possible.