So. The World Cup.
Leaving aside – and I know it’s a big ask – all the FIFA corruption, all the ethical debates, all the human rights issues – the football has been brilliant. Music fans talk about albums that get you started into a particular band or genre, and my gateway into football in general and the World Cup in particular was Spain ‘82. The David Narey goal against Brazil. The Rossi hat-trick against the same brilliant yet fatally flawed team. A game that finished 10-1. The Toni Schumacher assault on Patrick Battiston. The Anschluss game between West Germany (yep, I’m old) and Austria. The Marco Tardelli celebration. And Scotland qualified, as we always did in those days. It was the best of times.
I was eleven at the time of that World Cup. My lads are Eighteen and Sixteen. Strange names, but there you go. But despite being at least one World Cup ahead of me they’re seeing at least as much if not more bampottery in 2022 than I experienced in ‘82.
And fair play to them. A World Cup in the winter, for crying out loud. Saudi Arabia beating Argentina. Cameroon beating a desperately poor Brazil. Morocco, Japan, Tunisia, Australia and South Korea progressing while Belgium and Germany don’t. There’s a subtle but significant shift here that maybe mirrors a changing geopolitical picture. Perhaps Qatar hosting a World Cup won’t in a couple of decades be seen as such an anomaly. Follow the money. But that’s a different and arguably more important post for a different, but not too distant, day. This stuff matters,
And so does this. So let me get to why I’m here.
Much as I have been absolutely glued to this most unique – for good and ill – of global tournaments, I’ve found myself missing the actual experience of attending live football. I suspect I’m not alone in that. And with Scotland continuing to take the moral high ground by refusing to qualify for any World Cup since 1998, I get to decide where to feed my obsession.
When you live in Stranraer, it’s not a difficult choice.
This morning my older laddie, Magnus, and I had a blether about whether we’d go to a freezing cold Stair Park for Stranraer v Stirling Albion or bide in the hoose for USA v Netherlands.
Naturally we agreed to disagree. I got Stair Park, an incredible game and great bovril. He got Lochans Mill, central heating and what sounded like a fabulous match. I got the coo shed, he got the coal fire. Both our matches finished 3-1. But by ending up less foonert than me he’s probably through to the next round on the “most toes still warm” rule. No need for VAR on that one. Although it would probably still get it wrong.
Much as I adore the game, I’ve never been much of a player. I’ve loved every second my health has allowed me to play, however. The buzz of competing. The joy of the camaraderie. The game’s the thing.
At Stair Park today, midway through the second half of a keenly contested and entertaining game, Stranraer’s Grant Gallagher scored the most outrageous overhead kick to secure a deserved 3-1 win against Stirling Albion. It was without question one of the finest goals I’ve ever seen at the auld place. And I don’t say that lightly. I mean, I’ve seen Willie Gibson in his pomp. And the great Slovak Lubomir Moravcik was able to retire in the knowledge that nobody could ever accuse him of not having a goal at Stair Park on his CV.
It’s not exactly an extensive back catalogue, but I remember as a boy once scoring a really good goal in a game that probably didn’t matter at all – and being so thrilled about it that I couldn’t sleep. While lesser competitions in Qatar grab our attention, there’s an absolute worldy being scored in front of a couple of hundred people in a wee town in Scotland’s far corner.
So imagine the joy Grant Gallagher felt today when he scored a spectacular goal that took his team to fourth place in the fourth highest league in Scotland.
And then imagine doing that, times ten, on the biggest public stages you could imagine, in the biggest competitions, every week, for seventeen years of your life.
The late great sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney once said that the natural reaction to watching the outrageous talent that was Celtic’s Jimmy Johnstone was to burst out laughing at the sheer audacity of the man.
And I found myself thinking something similar tonight when watching Lionel Messi. I mean, is he better than Ronaldo? Than Pele? It’s a bit like asking if Tiger was better than Nicklaus. But it’s kind of the wrong question at the wrong time. I mean, who cares? The important thing is that I am alive and am able to watch him.
During lockdown, like many people, I watched that excellent Netflix documentary about the Chicago Bulls and the extraordinary Michael Jordan. Something Jordan says stands out. He said he always kept in mind that there was always some young person in the crowd who had never seen him play before. He owed that person his “A” game. He always tried to be the best version of himself.
The conversation about who is the GOAT can surely wait for another day. If this is to be his Last Dance, let’s enjoy him for what he is, for as long as he is here.
We will not see his likes again.