Who needs the Copacabana, we have Fir Park.

International football isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; indeed, many of my fellow football fans actively loathe the enforced break from club action World Cup and European Qualifiers bring. But I’m not one of them. I began to support my club side, Rangers, in the late 80s after seeing Ally McCoist ensure Scotland’s qualification for the 1990 World Cup by scoring against Norway at Hampden. As such, I actively enjoy getting the opportunity to watch international matches in any shape or form, but I was a little apprehensive about Scotland playing Brazil at the Emirates Stadium this afternoon.

The handsome financial incentive offered to the Scottish Football Association to take up the fixture may boost the coffers of our national governing body, but I’m not sure these type of fixtures help the team and the players much. Sharing a pitch with the fifth best international team in the World may provide a valuable experience to learn from, but you can only learn from experience by learning from it (are you following?), and I’m not entirely convinced that many of the Scotland team on the pitch today have the capacity to heed the footballing lesson handed out by Brazil this afternoon. By way of example, Gary Caldwell, a player nearer the end of his career than the start, still appears to make the same positioning and decision making errors in every game he plays, and was lucky to not be penalised for twice handling the ball inside his own penalty area. Scott Brown, the captain of Celtic appeared out of his depth, off the pace, and continually let the Brazilians run off him.

It could be argued that both Neymar’s goals came about due to negligence by Brown; the 19 year old Brazilian exploited gaps down Scotland’s right to ghost into the area and curl a shot past McGregor for his first, and accepted the responsibility of converting a penalty he’d earned himself for his second. Charlie Adam was guilty of conceding the penalty after naively getting too close to Neymar in the penalty area, but the danger had once again originated on the Scots’ right flank.

Charlie Adam has taken the Premier League by storm this season, but his performance today was more reminiscent of some he turned in while playing in the lighter blue of Rangers. Hollywood balls and slack passing in midfield meant Scotland’s main creative force had managed to marginalise himself. James McArthur has played a handful of games for Wigan this season since his move from Hamilton and seemed subdued amidst such illustrious company, Steven Whittaker was game but once more prone to switching off defensively, and this all left James Morrison trying to pin Scotland’s five man midfield together himself.

And with the midfield misfiring so badly, lone striker Kenny Miller was left even more isolated than usual, with Opta tweeting he only had seven touches of the ball in the first half. Scotland did seem to improve after the introduction of Barry Bannan in the fifty-sixth minute, mainly because the 21 year old set about putting the Brazilian midfield and defence under the same kind of pressure they had been exacting so effectively on the Scots. Indeed, Bannan was to register Scotland’s only shot on goal, with a tame free kick near the end of the match.

It’s difficult to know what to take from today’s result and performance; while Scotland were never a threat in attack, they did manage to defend fairly competently. The challenge of containing Brazil will hopefully stand the squad in good stead for the Euro 2012 qualifier away to Spain in October, if the players choose to switch their CPUs to ‘learn’. However, there’s more to international friendlies than receiving footballing masterclasses from the game’s big guns’; a national team’s choice of challenge match on FIFA sanctioned dates can have a big impact on qualification for the finals of tournaments.

This is due to the infernal machinations of FIFA’s World Rankings, which dictate which seeding pot each country ends up in for the qualifying section draws (for CONCACAF, CAF and UEFA competitions anyway). A slide down the World Rankings will see a corresponding plummet in pot, with A being where it’s at and F the place to avoid, especially with the draw for the 2014 World Cup Qualifiers imminent. As I write this, Scotland are currently ranked at 50th in the World, and can thus expect to be seeded in Pot D, which is far from ideal.

So how do the World Rankings affect seedings? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure, and I don’t know if anyone outside FIFA is either. The bottom line however is that if you lose a match, be it friendly or competitive, you get no ranking points at all. This has been Scotland’s downfall over the last ten years; we’ve arranged ill-advised friendlies, lost morale and ranking points, tumbled down the rankings and seedings, lost more morale and a vicious circle thus entails. With this in mind, Scotland agreeing to play a friendly against Brazil, a game in which we were virtually guaranteed to lose is perhaps not the best decision from a long-term footballing point of view.

After the game, Brazilian goalscorer Neymar claimed he had suffered racist abuse during the game, saying “This atmosphere of racism is totally sad…we leave our country to play here and something like this happens…they were jeering me a lot, even when I was about to kick the penalty the entire stadium was jeering”. His team-mate Lucas Leiva confirmed he removed a banana from the pitch and observed “Europe, which is considered the first world, is the place where this thing happens more.”

It remains unclear as to who actually threw the banana on the pitch, although at least one source has claimed it was a Brazilian.

Advertisements

Summits and Molehills

If you live in the United Kingdom, it’s that time again when the decennial census is issued, and completion is mandatory. During the last census of 2001, an internet campaign saw many respondents note their religion was ‘Jedi’. While this was seen as a harmless situationist prank aimed at displaying how Britain’s spirituality had grown beyond the traditional Judeo-Christian faiths, disengenuous ‘flash’ answers such as the Jedi one can have far-reaching repercussions as the Government uses statistics generated by the Census to allocate resources and funding. The British Humanist Society advises that if you feel strongly about the question being included in the Census as a non-religious person, rather than ‘sabotage’ the survey, you should state that you are non-religious.

This of course only applies if you  identify as being non-religious; you might well live your life by the principles espoused by Master Yoda, and that’s fine, but this is where the Census runs into trouble. I was born into a long-line of Protestants, on both sides of my family, and was baptised at a couple of months of age. Neither of my parents are church-going and they seem at something of a loss to explain why I was baptised other than it was expected of them, a tradition they should continue.

The comedian Dara Ó Briain has stated in the past "I’m staunchly atheist, I simply don’t believe in God. But I’m still Catholic, of course. Catholicism has a much broader reach than just the religion. I’m technically Catholic, it’s the box you have to tick on the census form: ‘Don’t believe in God, but I do still hate Rangers.’". Many people, including me, still see the religion they or their parents were raised in as supplying elements of their character. If they don’t believe in the faith part of the faith, they may still identify with the religion as an ethnicity or creed.

When I fill in the census however, I will certainly tick the non-religious box. I’m an atheist, and while I identify with most of the tenets of the Christian faith, I just don’t feel there’s a supreme being out there. However, in contrast to Mr. Ó Briain, I do love Rangers…well, most of the time anyway. I first started following the team while attending a non-denominational primary school on the outskirts of Glasgow, probably because most of my classmates did. My father has never shown any interest in football, and once I became ensnared by the pantomime that particular game is, I was left to find a club to support more or less of my own accord.

So, I was baptised a Protestant and support Rangers; so far, so predictable. And while my atheism has meant I have experienced many ideological differences with the Catholic Church over the years, I wouldn’t describe myself a being a staunch loyalist either. I have tended to vote for Labour in local and general elections. Scottish society has changed a lot in the last 50 years, and many things have stayed the same; Rangers and Celtic fans are still delineated on religious and political grounds, both by themselves (to an extent) and by others, and such groupings aren’t always accurate or helpful.

Last week the two Old Firm clubs, Strathclyde Police and the Scottish Government held an emergency ‘summit’ to discuss on-going anti-social behaviour by fans and indeed employees of the two clubs during derby games. The parties agreed to a six point plan to help eradicate sectarianism from Scottish society, including addressing issues such as ‘drink-related offences’, ‘responsible drinking’ and sectarianism itself. In an ideal world people would not feel the urge to stab another human being after a game of football, that goes without saying, but…

Of course this isn’t an ideal world, and the three issues I’ve quoted above are hardly unique to Scotland. The Scottish Government should not be criticised for attempting to combat sectarianism, binge drinking and violence, but they can be chastised for making a pig’s ear of their mediations. As part of a professional qualification, I’ve recently been studying change management, and this has given me something of an insight as to why many attempts at modifying behaviour or habits fail; one of the chief reasons for change is the subject rejecting the need to change.

With Scottish society continuing to change and develop, the make up of the support of both the Old Firm teams has changed markedly over the last 25-30 years; religious and political affiliation no longer play such a huge part in determining which football club you’ll follow, nor does which school you went to for that matter. Indeed, from my own personal observations, there is growing friction in the Rangers support between those that espouse traditional Presbyterian, Conservative values, those that feel the team winning is all that matters, and all the spectrum in between. A similar phenomenon is almost certainly occurring among the Celtic support. The one thing all these disparate groups have in common is their affiliation with the team they support, and in modern Britain that’s almost, if not the equal of religious belief or the identification with a certain faith-based ethnicity I mentioned earlier. And that brand of piety brings its own problems, because if there’s one thing football fans don’t like, it’s their behaviour, or the character of their club being castigated.

Scottish society may be changing in many ways; a once homogenous Presbyterian, white society is becoming more and more diverse, but football fans are still tribal. There’s still a them-and-us mentality between fans of most rival teams worldwide, and the historic religious attachments of the two bigger Glasgow teams has intensified these rivalries.  Supporters of Rangers and Celtic have been flinging abuse at each other for nearly 130 years, most of it based on religious and political assumptions. The problem the Scottish Government and Scottish society as a whole have is ensuring the promulgators of Sectarian views want to change, and I don’t think they do. There many Rangers fans that are steadfast the term ‘fenian’ is not sectarian, and they’d be quite prepared to argue their case to the highest authority possible. Similarly, the word ‘Hun’ was been designated a ‘religiously-aggravated’ term, something supporters of many other clubs would perhaps take issue with. You, and society may not agree with these viewpoints, but they should at least be understood.

Many Scots now appear to be confused about what sectarianism actually is and others simply feel their behaviour doesn’t need to be modified; these are points that have to be addressed if the recent summit’s six-point plan is to make any headway. Political sectarianism should be recognised as being just as divisive as its religious sibling, and the righteous voices need to realise that these differences and football violence occur all over the world and as such need to be addressed with patience and by opening clear dialogue with the individuals they’re attempting to communicate with. The fact that apparently no supporter representatives from any of Scotland’s football clubs were invited to the summit is damning. The worst thing that can happen is blame is thrown and proscriptions issued; this has never, in the course of human history had any effect other than making the person you’re trying to admonish more defiant and instil a siege mentality.

The summit itself has seen accusations of opportunism being levelled at First Minister Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party with the Scottish Government elections just over a month away. The flashpoints during the game itself involving players and staff amounted to little more than some clumsy, rather than dangerous, challenges by Rangers players, some dissent, and a pushing match involving Ally McCoist and Neil Lennon. Worse scenes have been seen in the English leagues in recent weeks, and it’s felt by many, including Celtic director Brian Wilson, that the Scottish Government’s involvement is ‘disproportionate’. That said, Brian Wilson is a former Labour MP, and may be guilty of a little electioneering himself.

The issues of sectarianism, violence and alcoholism are concerns that Scotland has to address among other serious on-going concerns, but whether they are addressed in the right way or not remains to be seen.