In search of freedom … from Mel Gibson

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald www.flickr.com

The Tartan Army. Photo by: Ronnie MacDonald
http://www.flickr.com

The draw for the qualifying stages of the 2018 World Cup took was conducted while I was asleep. To be honest, I’d forgotten that it was even taking place last weekend. When I awoke, it was to discover the sudden appearance of Mel Gibson all over my Facebook feed. There he was, charging forward, arm extended, offering the hand of … well, not exactly friendship.

Scotland v England; the auld enemy drawn together in the same group. Two competitive matches to anticipate. Fortunately, the recent progress that Scotland has made under Gordon Strachan means that those matches will actually be competitive. England start as big favourites of course but they can expect a stern test at both Hampden and Wembley.

Strachan said that “the whole of Scotland are roaring” after the draw: “they make take all three points, but they will never take our underdog sense of grievance” or something like that.

Scotland v England is the oldest international fixture in the world and it may be a little bit of an understatement to describe the rivalry as intense. I’m all in favour of intense rivalry and even more in favour of the ‘banter’ that stokes it. I must also confess (and I’m not particularly proud of this) that I tend to support whichever opposition England happen to be facing.

That said, I have very little time for the ‘stand up if you hate England’ brigade. It’s a song (and there are plenty of others like it) that gets repeated airings at Hampden and never fails to strike me as rather pathetic.

I am a very patriotic Scot but not a nationalist (at least not in the contemporary context of Scottish politics). I think there’s a perfectly reasonable case to be made for Scottish independence and it’s one that it is sometimes but not always made by the SNP. It’s not a case that I find entirely convincing however and that’s why I would’ve voted no in last year’s referendum if I’d been entitled to vote (something denied to me as a Scot living overseas).

While there were some very positive aspects of the referendum campaign – the level of engagement among young people for instance – it did bring to the surface the dark and unseemly underbelly of Scottish nationalism. There lurks hatred of the English and indeed hatred of anyone (“traitors” is the term often employed) of anyone who doesn’t share their zeal for independence.

I sincerely hope that the forthcoming games are remembered as a sporting spectacle and that the banter remains exactly that and doesn’t become something altogether uglier.

The matches promise to be two great occasions and you should definitely take the chance to watch if you like your football with a generous side serving of intensity. These will be games for the brave rather than faint of heart, on the pitch and in the stands.

Between now and then, I’ve no doubt that Mel Gibson will be making a few more appearances on Facebook.

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Pre-season: the newbies, the nerves, and the nausea

Pre=season training. Photo by: Picture Esk www.flickr.com

Pre-season training. Photo by: Picture Esk
http://www.flickr.com

It’s that time of year, the sun is out (even occasionally in Scotland), the grass is freshly cut, and all across the land players are reporting back for pre-season training. They’ve had their summer holidays involving yachts, five star resorts, maybe turned up for an afternoon at Wimbledon, and now it’s back to work.

I wonder if the first day back at work after the summer holidays is the same for footballers as the rest of us: sharing awkward holiday pictures, delivering tacky souvenirs, and comparing tans. At least they probably don’t have around 2,000 emails to deal with unless they have a very active agent.

Of course almost straight away they then jet off to long haul destinations (increasingly turning up in this part of the world to meet and greet the global fan base). It’s surprising that travel supplements haven’t appeared yet on ‘this season’s top pre-season destinations: the ideal mix of climate, cuisine and local fans willing to pay inflated ticket prices while you go through the motions in a meaningless game.’

Indeed, the first match I saw here in Malaysia was a Malaysia Select XI v Barcelona. It wasn’t much of a game and Barca ended up winning 3-1. To their credit, Barca fielded a mostly full strength team but with one exception, yes, Messi was left kicking his heels and nursing a tight hamstring on the touchline. A week later, the Catalans kicked-off their La Liga campaign with a 7-0 victory over Levante in which Messi scored twice so the injury clearly wasn’t too debilitating.

I felt great sympathy for those in the crowd in Kuala Lumpur who chanted their hero’s name throughout the second half in the hope that the manager might be persuaded to send him on even for a brief cameo. Alas it was not to be and a lot of kids, plus a few big kids, with ‘Messi 10’ on the back of their strips went home at least a little disappointed.

It seemed a bit off to me to plaster Messi’s face all over town in the month before the game as part of the marketing effort and then not play him because he had a very slight injury. These games represent one of the enduring dilemmas of the modern game – sporting interests versus commercial interests. I doubt many managers of the big clubs would consider playing in the tropical heat of KL against vastly inferior opposition to be the ideal preparation for their forthcoming league campaigns.

Tomorrow night it’s Liverpool’s turn to experience the tropical conditions. They too will face a Malaysia Select XI (meaning that foreign players playing in Malaysia can be selected) rather than the Malaysian national team. In terms of the competitiveness of the contest, that’s probably a good thing since the national side’s last match was a 6-0 home defeat to Palestine.

I was at that game but I’m not going tomorrow night despite being a Liverpool fan. To be honest, I’ve lost virtually all interest in friendly matches. I can understand local fans wanting to see the teams they support live (and people here are huge supporters of the English Premier League as is the case throughout the region) but when you’ve seen Liverpool play at Anfield in a Premier League game, a game such as this holds a lot less appeal.

One interesting thing about this time of year of course is the transfer merry-go-round. It’s been spinning pretty furiously at Anfield but it remains to be seen to what effect. I think Milner is an absolutely terrific free transfer signing and I’m confident that Benteke will prove a decent if perhaps slightly overpriced buy. Firmino looks exciting but Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has been far from convincing so far and thus I will reserve judgment for a couple of months.

There’s a lot of pressure on new signings, especially the big money ones. If the recently arrived star striker doesn’t score in a friendly away at Yeovil or somewhere then you can be sure that he will have experienced his first crisis at his new club.

Most clubs appear to still insist on some sort of initiation ceremony for newcomers and this often seems to take the form of karaoke. I imagine Raheem Sterling may have done Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ when he arrived at Manchester City. It’s a rich man’s world indeed Raheem but it can’t buy class.

As the Sterling saga demonstrated, patience is a rare commodity in football these days and the stakes are often very high, very quickly. Already a lot of clubs are battling for qualification in the Champions League and Europa League. My Croatian team, Rijeka (who have qualified consistently for the group stages of the Europa League in recent seasons), lost 3-0 at home last week to Aberdeen. At least they had the decency to lose to a Scottish team.

I had expected Aberdeen to struggle in that fixture, not least because the Croatian league season has already started while in Scotland the opening fixtures are still over a week away. I’ve recently become a convert to the idea of summer football in Scotland and one of the reasons is to improve the prospects for Scottish sides in European qualifying games.

My own memories of pre-seasons in Scotland are mostly of the harrowing variety. I remember the long runs along Carnoustie beach which lasted until at least half the squad had vomited or looked on the brink of doing so. Afterwards we would get an equally harrowing massage from the physio – it was agony but it did seem to help. Our physio wore a permanent neck brace and walked with the aid of a stick, an unlikely candidate to be a physiotherapist but he was a good one.

For all the nerves and nausea (whether as player or supporter) the build up to the first day of the season is always exciting, you’re still filled with hope irrespective of the pre-season it’s been. Football fans tend toward the optimistic at this time of year unless your team has sold all its best players (as my club have, and all of them to Celtic).

Still, a big win on the opening day and you could be top of the league. Not long to go now, I’m almost nauseous with excitement.