Football: Exploring the lost world of cross-border harmony

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The Independent Online
THE PAST, we are told, is another country. So leafing through an old football annual the other day - from the 1959-60 season - offered the opportunity of a spot of foreign travel.

In an article with the attention-grabbing headline: "They call me Birmingham City's stormy petrel", Bunny Larkin admits: "I was once unwittingly one of the central figures in a real old guffuffle at St Andrew's, when we met Chelsea..."

Elsewhere, a contentious piece sets out the case for a new national stadium: "People will no longer tolerate the queues and the slow crawl, in the fumes of carbon monoxide, which are accepted as a part of the Wembley occasion... why does it always have to be Wembley? Indeed, will it always be Wembley?"

Guffuffle on the pitch, guff over Wembley - this seemed another country very like our own. But what was this? "Every big match at Hampden is another milestone in the life of the soccer fan," began one article. It continued in similar fashion: "There is no place quite like Glasgow on international day as the tartan-tammied and white-rose bedecked hordes descend on the city... as the crowds wend their way home there is the usual happy banter.

"Bitterness and ill feeling is unknown to this crowd. At Hampden Park... even the odd regular troublemaker respects the great day and place." It would be nice to think that a similar atmosphere might prevail as the tartan-tammied and white-rose bedecked hordes make their way out of the famous old stadium at 10-to-four this afternoon.

Let's just imagine those uplifting scenes of sporting peace and harmony for a moment... the flags of St George and St Andrew mingle on the concourse as supporters exchange greetings. No England supporter thinks of taking the piss out of sporrans, and no Scot mentions Bannockburn.

From the milling throng, spontaneous chanting breaks out - of a strictly neutral and sporting nature - stressing the essential value of fair competition and the comradeship of mutual struggle: "We all agree, that football can be exciting..." And then: "Stand up, if you like both teams..." And then: "We. Hate. Bigotry. Say, `we hate bigotry...' "

Exeunt omnes for a good old drink in George Square, where in years gone by, if our football annual correspondent is to be believed, a mixture of "Clansmen and Sassenachs" would roll along arm-in-arm to catch the last buses.

Doesn't quite work, does it? As this week's BBC undercover documentary on football hooliganism made only too dismally clear, violence has not gone away from the game now that it has been taken up as the new rock 'n' roll. It merely lurks beneath the surface.

It is hard to believe that characters with names like Nightmare and Mayhem - McMayhem? - will not be busying themselves on their mobile phones today, seeking to co-ordinate the movements of their own sad, vicious private armies.

Trying to reason with the kind of characters revealed in midweek is probably futile. But it must surely have registered on even the regular troublemaker of 1999 that if the latest manifestation of this ancient sporting rivalry turns nasty, England can kiss goodbye to any lingering hopes they might have of staging the 2006 World Cup finals.

After their recent whirlwind, whirlybird tour of England's football high spots, the technical bid evaluators of Fifa, football's world governing body, have flown onwards to future appointments in South Africa, Morocco and Brazil. But their comments made it clear that any trouble at the England- Scotland matches would be seen as indicative of a recession to the bad old days of British hooliganism.

The comments about the Scots by the England manager, Kevin Keegan, while he was a player, unearthed in a Sunday newspaper by the sports writer Mike Langley, offer little comfort for today's confrontation. "They treat the game as war," Keegan was quoted as saying.

As the war games are enacted again today on the plot of land bought for pounds 10,000 by Queen's Park football club in 1899, it will not just be the men at Lancaster Gate who hold their breath.

Many years ago, as Sir Alf Ramsey arrived at Glasgow airport with his England players for a match against Scotland at Hampden, he was greeted brightly with the words "Welcome to Scotland". Sir Alf's response was customarily clipped: "You must be fuckin' jokin'."

In today's PR-conscious days, Keegan would never dare to offer such a response. But in his heart, he probably feels the same.

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