They think it’s all over. It nearly is.
Regular readers won’t be remotely surprised that I’m keenly anticipating today’s World Cup final. I hope that the meeting of the two best midfields of the tournament, and the presence of players like Modric, Perisic, Kante and the wonderful Mbappe mean that we’ll witness a classic between France and Croatia. My head puts France as slight favourites but, naturally, my heart aches for Croatia – seventeen times smaller than France, with no oil to sell, with a GDP half the size of Scotland, yet big enough, wealthy enough, clever enough to be successfully independent – to lift the trophy. Football isn’t coming home after all, and after being lectured by the London media that it is Scotland’s patriotic duty to support our nearest neighbours, there will no doubtless be street parties across Blighty if France seal the deal this afternoon. Aye, right.
In many ways, the Croatian story – a small nation with a team whose players who grew up in bitter conflict and tragedy but who yet might conquer the world – is the most compelling one, but it has been the significant England improvement under Gareth Southgate that has commanded most of the headlines.
And understandably so. This England team is good rather than great, yet Southgate has done an excellent job in creating an ethos with humility and hard work at its core. The list of achievements shouldn’t be dismissed. They finally won a penalty shoot-out. They were twenty-two minutes from a World Cup final. They won a knock-out game in ninety minutes. Their striker won the golden boot. You could make a case for their right back being one of the players of the tournament. They’ve been open and accessible with the press. The squad, with seven of the players hailing from the Windrush generation, is ethnically diverse and modern. And what strange times we live in when the manager of a football team talks about the bigger picture, about affecting things way beyond the game, in a way that few mainstream politicians come remotely close to doing.
A few days after the loss to Croatia, a more balanced perspective is emerging. Just as there are reasons for English fans to be proud and optimistic, there are some caveats. Should the manager have changed things earlier in the semi-final? Almost certainly – the manager, like the team, is a work in progress. They got a little lucky against Columbia. For all their progress, they had a uniquely favourable draw yet came up short against the three teams – Belgium (twice) and Croatia – who were the real benchmark of progress. From looking so carefree earlier, they looked panicked and fearful as Croatia piled on the pressure. The shirt, to borrow from Fabio Capello, looked heavy again.
But overall, this is progress, right? This is a springboard, surely? The team is young. They’ll be even better in 2022, wiser and supplemented by younger, better players. Well, mebbes aye, mebbes no, as Kenny Dalglish might say.
As Scotland’s boycott of major tournaments enters its third decade, I console myself by reading the daily blog of a journalist friend who has spent the last month in Russia. He wrote yesterday that, in the aftermath of the Croatia defeat, a sober note was sounded by the former Liverpool captain, Jamie Carragher.
“One of football’s greatest myths”, writes Carragher, “is that the agony of defeat will be the catalyst for future success”.
Jamie’s reasoning was that sport is often as much about opportunity as it is about talent, and he is surely right. He speaks from experience. His Liverpool team had an unexpected and sustained charge at the title four years ago but fell just short. The narrative was that the title win had just been delayed by twelve months. They had a brilliant young manager, great young talents, Luis Suarez. But Carragher wasn’t buying it. He knew that when opportunities present themselves you use them or you lose them. No matter how fair the winds, you can fall victim to what Harold MacMillan called “events”. And in the event, the manager lost his touch and was sacked. Suarez went to Barcelona. Rivals improved. “Carra” was spot on.
History is littered with missed opportunities. The last England team to really perform at a World Cup, the 1990 vintage, failed to even qualify for the next one. Yes, you can come back from a near miss. Rory McIlroy, famously, won the US Open at a canter just weeks after blowing the Masters, and maybe this England team really is destined to win big. But it is a million miles from a certainty. This is sport. This is life.
“The vanity of each generation”, writes the brilliant Andrew o’ Hagan in his essay ‘Scotland Your Scotland’, “is to believe that we are living in the greatest period of history. Each generation imagines it is germinating a brand new world, that the times are glorious, that their period is the most interesting ever to occur, that earthly progress would turn around now for a thousand years and their names would be written on water. The Romans believed it, and their civilisation is now a heap of lovely ruins and a dead language”.
Our blind vanity is to view the path of human civilisation as constantly upwards. But we have leader of the free world who is a racist and a misogynist and a narcissist and a climate change denier. We have dark money and a media that fails to report it. We have a power grab and an assault on Scottish democracy itself. We have a Scottish Conservative leader who criticises an independence march but not an Orange one, who tweets about tolerance and diversity but who fails to address intolerance and bigotry in her own midden. We have a UK government that cannot govern without the DUP. And we have Brexit. Progress isn’t upward. These are sizeable bumps on an increasingly rocky road.
So stands Scotland where it did?
Four years ago, on September 18th 2014, we too snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. But we’ve every reason to believe that we’re about to get over the line. What’s more, we have the opportunity.
The vow has been broken and even its author has denounced it for the sham it always was. The power grab rips up the 1998 Scotland Act. The Supreme Court Judgement ends the Sewell Convention and the moment Westminster legislates on farming or health or any other devolved competency, devolution is over and it’s never coming back.
But we have a mandate – three of them – for a second independence referendum. Even if Westminster says Now Is Not The Time, we do it anyway – because holding one, and winning one, means it becomes a political imperative – just like Brexit was. We also have the support of nearly half of Scotland, and we haven’t even started. The only reason unionists don’t want a vote is because they know we will win, and they know it won’t be close.
And there may be a general election soon, in which case we save ourselves the bother and make it Scotland’s plebiscite election. In other words, we have one manifesto commitment and one only – that if the pro-independence parties win over half the seats in Scotland (35) we simply dissolve the union immediately – a position which Thatcher herself saw as a mandate for independence. And, incidentally, today’s polls show forty-eight seats for the SNP.
We’re nearly there. We can pretty much have self-determination as any time of our choosing, but the moment for talking about “timing” has long since passed. We’re better than we were four years ago, and the narrative has changed from when to do it to the absolute, urgent, existential imperative of doing it right now.
Let’s finish this, people. Well played Gareth and the boys – it was a great ride while it lasted. Football won’t be coming home this evening. But, very soon, independence will be.
Oh, and ‘mon the Croats….