Last month I was fortunate enough to attend a football game at Hampden Park where Scotland played Poland in the qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championship. This event turned out to be a rather calamitous affair for the Scottish players and fans and buried Scotland’s hopes of qualifying. A complete disaster, one might think; a ‘typical’ – according to popular oral tradition – Scottish performance, another might say.
From my personal point of view any result was only going to bring mixed feelings; thus before the game I, somewhat hesitantly decided, to share my loyalties between the country in which I was born and the country I have lived in for the last decade. Watching the match from the Scottish stand might generate a certain uneasiness amongst the local fans, I expected, especially if I was to start cheering for Poland. I anticipated seeing few people like me, who had, through their residency, managed to buy a ticket for the home team end with a view to being only passive observers, stripped of their home colours and unable to openly support Poland.
However instead of witnessing a traditionally cordoned off ‘away end’, which usually implies alienation and displacement, I found myself surrounded by a large number of Polish football supporters dressed in their home colours, casually sitting and chatting amongst the sea of Scottish fans. Don’t get me wrong, there was ‘away end’ secured by a minimal number of police, however the amount of ‘away’ supporters that were scattered across the stadium and the general positive and friendly atmosphere towards them gave the impression that the majority of fans, although exhibiting their national identity through dress and colours, had accepted and actually enjoyed the visitors in the ‘wrong end’.
This admittedly unexpected experience made me ponder the conventionally recognised function of the sport as an identity-marker and maker, its forms of expressing one’s national belonging with its stereotypical aggression (verbal and physical) that so often follows the division ‘us – them’; a division, which is created by the manifestation of one’s belonging through various symbols of national identity. This event, superficially, was no different. On the Scottish side a particularly colourful demonstration was given by the Tartan Army, who embraced the use of the kilt – an internationally recognised feature that is associated with Scotland as an identity marker.
Before the match the Scottishness of the home ground, its national uniqueness that (I presume) should bond spectators, was also emphasised with a mixture of heritage and commercial elements: a piper playing ‘Flower of Scotland’ on Hampden’s rooftop was followed by karaoke, which incorporated a combination of ‘typically’ Scottish songs such as ‘500 miles’ (Proclaimers) and ‘Loch Lomond’ (traditional; here by Runrig).
Polish fandom does not have a parallel organisation with a unifying component such as the kilt; the dress code is a rather personal act of adorning the national colours on one’s body, sometimes with references to history, politics or simply a local football club.
Contrary to police warnings of anticipated trouble which was supposedly connected to Polish supporters bringing their colours to the home end, both groups of fans managed to sustain a generally friendly atmosphere throughout the game despite displaying very openly their team preferences. How was this possible?
If we agree with Joseph Bradley that, to a degree, ‘football can be considered a mirror of, and door into, an understanding of key aspects of Scottish society’, it is reasonable to maintain that the answer partially lies in the diverse structure of contemporary Scottish society. The number of Polish emigrants who have made their home in Scotland is the second highest amongst minorities. If on a daily basis Scottish and Polish nationalities interact, it is possible that this network could be extended to a football ground and, diplomatically, for the duration of the game, through encompassing ‘home’ minorities, expand the meaning of a ‘local fan’ and a ‘home game’.
However if this diasporic explanation seems overly simplified, recent studies show that a cosmopolitan outlook has lent itself to football grounds and helps to create some form of overarching supranational identity. This latter view, in the context of that game, can be confirmed by the reflections of the fans themselves. The discussion on the ‘Polish fans in Scottish Sectors’ topic on the Tartan Army Message Board shows not only an extensive range of overwhelmingly positive comments regarding (any) guest supporters sitting in the ‘wrong end’, but also a much deeper change in understanding national identity on other than simply divisive levels. One post particularly caught my attention, as it not only deals with possible aggression towards guest supporters, but also confirms the cosmopolitan attitude:
I have to admit that, thankfully, I did not meet people who would fit into the category given by Orraloon. On the contrary, the experience was filled with an upbeat optimism that even if the dress code and entertainment still replicate the same national symbols, the multinational outlook in Scotland reaches collectively far beyond the surface of football scarfs, which, inevitably, I had to purchase!
 Joseph M. Bradley, ‘In-groups, out-groups and contested identities in Scottish international football’, Sport in Society, 14:6 (2011), pp. 818-32.
 See for example Michael Skey, ‘What nationality he is doesn’t matter a damn!’ International football, mediated identities and conditional cosmopolitanism’, National Identities¸17:3 (2015), pp. 271-87.