Che Adams, Nationality, and Tribalism, in Football.
This is a short, lunchtime piece. It's just my opinion and not meant as gospel (it never is). It's also not pointing the finger at anyone or decrying debate - it's doing the opposite - hopefully encouraging discourse, and offering an opinion on why nationalism is a tricky thing to define and navigate.
Photo courtesy of @Marco_LUFC
I was speaking to my Polish pal at the park the other day. We're both Dads and our girls attend school together. I got to know him, however, through the game of football I organised to help folk meet other folks when I had not long moved here and didn't know any footballers.
Being a University town, we live in a fairly multi-cultural place, especially during term-time, so lots of different nationalities play (COVID-permitting). It gave me great joy to be able to chat my pal for an hour because it proved to me that the intention of the game must have worked. It brought disparate parties together. We were now pals. This (nearly) made all the frustration of organising such a large game worthwhile, what with the obligatory last-minute cancellations, money-collecting, buying replacement balls, dealing with pitch bookings and bib-washing duties!
In the course of our conversation, we spoke of his home team, Lech Poznan and doing 'the Poznan' at Man City. We moved on to his home country, and how much he is missing his family. I asked how things were in Poland and he told me that, just like other places in the world, the polarisation of thought and discourse between the political parties is as far apart as he can remember.
He was worried about this because many Poles, in seeking security and identity, had voted for the ruling party most closely resembling what he saw as National Socialism, which he, as a historically-aware, intelligent Pole, was absolutely gobsmacked by. He rolled his eyes and said, 'we have very short memories sometimes'.
Now, stay with me here, because national socialism, it most definitely isn't, but the notion of Che Adams choosing to declare for Scotland has had the Twittersphere up in arms this morning with strong opinions on what constitutes a professional athlete's nationality. This, of course, is why we love football. People are different, they think differently, and so it follows that their opinions on certain matters are different. That's fine - it's healthy.
Where it becomes a problem, however, is where one party refuses to see the other point of view, at all. I'm not saying that this happened on Twitter, or that I saw this happening. I'm not pointing fingers. I'm just saying that it does happen and as we've become aware of all too seriously in the current 'political climate', this can lead to distasteful divisions growing in our character-limiting world because we feel forced to make opinions that are.... well... character-limiting. And, as a proud member of the SSC (Tartan Army), I want to avoid that.
The duality of meaning here isn't just word-play. In forcing out words, regarding huge subjects, and often in response to someone else's similarly-crafted emotionally-charged pulp, we are forced to think and say something that we might not actually think; or that requires more characters, and certainly more time.
We've all been there. I'm not judging. Again, it's just something that happens.
In doing so, we often sacrifice our own, again, characters, because we tie them to the little avatar we've chosen to represent our views on the world. It's why social media depression and anxiety is a very real thing, and why we call for increased compassion, kindness and love at A\M. We do this because we believe vulnerability isn't a weakness - it's a strength.
The negligence of these things is why people of all walks, from supermarket workers to footballers, celebrities and presidents, have encountered difficulty in social media recently, and why it will continue to happen. Professional athletes are not exempt from human emotion; Che Adams will see his name trending on Twitter and when he opens up those threads, what will he see? It might be 'professional sport', but it's also humanity.
It's why in buying our soon to be 11-year-old daughter a phone, we're having very serious chats about being careful about what you 'say' on social media because it can be used by others to define you as a person. You might even start to believe such definitions yourself, squeezing yourself into that space-limiting pigeon hole.
This is a problem because our characters weren't meant to be defined or communicated via 280 characters.
Seeing this is my lunchtime, I appreciate we're getting into big questions here. (What defines character? What is national identity? And, how does it relate to football?) As ever, I appreciate this is somewhat skimming the surface so forgive any lack of depth! The intention is to bring people together, as always - or if that's impossible, then at least we can grow a little together.
I'm not going 'too deep' here. I understand that questioning Adam's decision to represent Scotland after the qualification has been secured, having not participated before, is the issue here. I get it. However, what creeps out at these moments is something else more distasteful, and it made me think of something else that lies dormant in the Tartan Army, something I used to think, and something that isn't okay.
Is Stuart McCall Scottish? How about Andy Goram? Richard Gough? Nigel Quashie? James Morrison? Shaun Maloney? Scott McTominay?
With over 200 caps (and counting) between them, 'of course', would be your answer, and if you've been a Scotland fan for any length of time, you'll understand that these players have more than just the Dark Blue that unites them - they were all born outside of Scotland.
I can't tell you how Scottish or South African our former captain, Richard Gough, felt when growing up in Johannesburg. I can't tell you how Swedish he felt either, that being his maternal heritage and place of birth. Maybe he feels all of them together, all of the time. Maybe he feels like being 'home' whenever he sets foot on those three nations' soil, the same way I do when I touch foot on a certain Scottish island, despite having grown up in Glasgow and now living in Stirling. It's just a feeling. A very subjective, but very real, feeling. All three feel like home, but they didn't always. It took time, it grew. It's why I honestly wouldn't know how to answer if someone were to ask me to choose an identity between a Brandane and a Glaswegian. Now imagine two teams played one another, and I had to choose a side; how do I do that? Maybe, like you, my cultural identity is fluid.
I'm pretty sure that at least one thing is true; when Richard Gough signed for Dundee United as an 18-year-old, from that point on he probably felt more Scottish with each passing day. It was made easier for him. Why? Because he was here. He was surrounded by Scotland and 'Scottishness'. Was he able to make a decision regarding what nation to play for when stepping off the plane at 18? Maybe, you'd need to ask him, but here's another question, and one we're really getting at; did his sense of nationality grow the longer he stayed, and played in and for Scotland? Now - I pick Gough for a number of reasons. It's divisive. We all know that he fell out with the SFA (he's sadly not alone in this regard in the 1990s) and that his subsequent cap-count was halted. That was his and our loss. He was a fine football player and a very proud Scot.
Division can do that.
I'm not suggesting Gough's ostracization from the National Team was as a result of his heritage, or not being Scottish enough, that would be ridiculous. But in asking the question, we inevitably get here, because that's exactly what some folks are in danger of doing with the young Southampton forward, Che Adams, before he's even started.
Is he a fine player? Yes.
Will we allow his national identity to grow and develop? To become 'more Scottish' over time by surrounding him with it?
Why do we allow it for some and not others?
Football is tribal, and I grew up a football fan. Influenced by many factors, I also grew up to generally abhor England as a sporting rival, although occasionally, this spilt over into actual hatred. Not often, but occasionally. It was just there.
My parents checked this attitude whenever it reared its head in our home, they had a zero-tolerance policy for it, and it wasn't like I was going around wearing an Anglophobic t-shirt. We had 'lots of English friends', as the old saying goes, and I was just a wee guy. But, I was also just a wee guy who stood up and sang 'stand up if you hate England' with 35,000 other Scots at Hampden. Indoctrination? Certainly impressionable. Harmless, you think, right? Part of the tribal identity? Well, I'm not so sure I understood it that way as a child - you'd need to ask each person singing how they felt.
When I was a slightly bigger wee guy, there was one moment, in particular, that spoke to me most loudly as a young man. I wasn't alone in not listening to my parents, and so it took someone else to speak into it for me - actually, it was more a look than a word.
My German pal from uni was spending the Summer with me, along with his Danish friend. It was brilliant. We climbed hills, visited the islands, went out to many a pub, and it was roasting. I was very proud to be Scottish and show off my country - and man, it wasn't hard that year.
I had a job in a pub in town, and they both came in to see me at the end of my shift over a few pints. We got talking about nationalities. I kept making reference to what I thought was the indisputably obvious way of thinking, that England were the baddies, and that we needed to be independent. I still believe the latter half of this, but for very different reasons than then.
I unloaded my 'facts' which included year after year of feeling like the 'wee man' with a chip on his shoulder, and I saw their faces change as I snarled my way through.
It wasn't that what I was saying was any crazier than what I had heard my brother, his mates, my mates and their dads, all saying - whilst nodding. And it wasn't like there was no truth to what I was saying, (the condescending pat on the head is real!) it was just the mention of national identity at the expense of another that alerted my continental friends.
See, I didn't just love Scotland - I hated England. To me, they were sides of the same coin. That was what defined my character, and my supposed identity, and that is why their faces changed. It hit hard and stuck with me.
A German and a Dane can do that to you, for obvious reasons, and in the same way, as I listened that bit more keenly when my Polish mate described what was happening back home.
Identities can do that, and, left unchecked, they can quickly breed division which can quickly get out of control. I shouldn't need to convince any Scottish football fans of that here.
Tribalism is fine and good as long as it remains within the realm of sport. I understand that that's what people are angry at here - a bit like when Kenny Miller when he signed for Rangers. The difference here is that we're all wanting Scotland to win. It's not England fans angry that we've pinched Adams, it's Scotland fans angry that we've pinched Adams.
When tribalism spills over into one person defining another person's character and nationality then you begin to encounter murky waters and a slippery slope - you begin to draw the looks, as I did, from those whose father's fathers fought and killed one another. You begin to get the impression that defining another's nationality might not be the best path to start down. That common ground is something worth looking for and preserving. It was after all, very preciously attained. Sport might be sport, but it operates under the banner of humanity first and foremost, and so when we draw lines, we'd better mean it.
As a Tartan Army member - I couldn't be more proud to be Scottish. I started a website for goodness sake. But that doesn't mean I get to say who's in and who's out. Who feels more or less Scottish than me. Who is more or less Scottish than me. I can't answer that for another person. It's not my job. I can't, in good conscience, start putting my own boundaries in place about something as fluid as national identity.
Che Adams might only just have made the first step on that journey towards 'Scottishness' - he might even identify more as an Englishman at present. Like Gough stepping off the plane, I don't know, you'd need to ask him. What is certain, however, is that just like every single other player who pulled on the Dark Blue - I'll support him, evermore, whilst he works it out.