Football: Revel in rivalry, but spare a thought for cross-border fall guys

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The Independent Online
ALL SET, then, for the contest which takes the U out of the UK?

Joined at the hip; united by language, parliament, monarch and media; friends across the thin black line a third(-ish) of the way down the mainland British map; sharers of our football culture (no Englishman turns off the "classified check" before having heard every last result from Stranraer to Stenhousemuir); despite all the banter and mock mutual hostility (in fact, because of it), essentially best mates.

Except that, for two days out of the next five, we're going to delight in our differences, swap the Union Jack for the crosses of Andrew and George, celebrate our separateness. Fair enough. Such is the nature of sporting rivalry.

But, let's hope we can enjoy it with a degree of grace, good taste, continued friendship and, most of all, understanding that those involved are all vulnerable, imperfect human beings.

Someone - apallingly negative thought though it is - is likely to emerge from the England-Scotland double-header with some pretty hideous baggage to bear. Kevin Keegan or Craig Brown (pleasant, civilised, well-meaning souls the pair of them) will have failed to take their country to the European Championship finals. And what else? A defender's telling error... a penalty conceded or - worse - missed... a back-pass left short... a marker escaped... a red card rashly earned. It'll be someone's fault.

On or before next Wednesday evening, one of the poor unfortunates saddled with the responsibility of pulling on his national jersey is likely to have blotched his CV with its most unpalatable and least forgettable entry.

For now, at a superficial level, the players can revel in the rivalry, smile for the snappers, pontificate about the possibilities. But, how is it when the light goes out and they turn over in the search for sleep, when everything's quiet and they're left with their real feelings? In this great national lottery, someone will draw the losing ticket and - toss, turn, gnash teeth - "It could be me".

Yes, they're all massively rewarded, of course they are. But, they're human too. No argument about over-paid, pampered professionals will stem my torrent of sympathy for the losers and - especially - the inevitable fall-guy. To him, money will be a flimsy defence against a lifetime of flashbacks to the day, or night, he caused his nation to lose the big one.

That's the trouble with these games that turn into "shared national experiences". Everyone remembers for better or worse, especially worse. Bonetti, Hunter, Pearce, Waddle, Southgate, McAllister or Beckham - not one of them is, or was, anything less than an outstanding footballer. However they, and several like them, all have to carry their high-profile moment of misery with them wherever they go.

For any individual it's an unfair burden, borne out of our inclination to raise the stakes impossibly and artificially high. That's why it was pleasant, earlier in the week, to learn of the Princess Royal's pre-match contribution. Original her words may not be, but pertinent they indisputably are. Her Royal Highness respectfully reminds us that it's "only a game".

Presumably she uses the word "only" in much the same way as Internazionale did when they wrote the cheque for Christian Vieri (ie, "Pay Lazio pounds 32m ONLY"). But at least she used it and introduced a modicum of perspective. "There are those who regard sport as just about winning," she continued, "and there are those who just want to do the best they can every time they go out. I have to say it's only a game, though I know I'll get lynched for that." Quite the opposite. She should be congratulated.

In the sporting sphere - her own equestrian excellence apart - the Princess Royal is perhaps most readily identified as a supporter of Scottish rugby (she needn't have settled for the royal box at Murrayfield last month, whole stands were available to her).

Her son has worn the Scottish national jersey. So, assuming (perhaps erroneously) that she would favour their soccer team too, maybe her sentiment is a psychological exercise in cushioning the blow of impending defeat. (NB, Scottish people: JOKE!)

More likely, however, it's a rational response to the bloating of a couple of football matches into another "Battle of Britain". With reverent apologies to the great, late William Shankly (to whom, when we meet on the other side of the pearly turnstiles, I shall defer on every other footballing issue), it's a sensible antidote to the ridiculous assertion that football is more important than life or death.

Don't get me wrong. It matters, OK. I'm English and very keen for England to win. But, God willing, no one dies in sport. Nor should anyone be crucified when they get it wrong. Watch... enjoy... forgive.