It’s a common feature of dramatic events that they are preceded by moments of great irony. The night before the Titanic sank the passengers and crew sang “For Those In Peril On The Sea” during the church service. Abraham Lincoln dreamed that he was at his own funeral just days before his assassination. And so it was with last night.
Borussia Dortmund vs AS Monaco is a fixture worth selling your gold teeth for. The quarter-final of the European Champions’ League. Borussia are the Pearl Of The West. Our midfield is a thing of beauty, believe me. Young and strong, it plays with its heart and not its head. Now you see us…now the ball’s in the net. They will make Dortmund great again we hope. It has been twenty years since Dortmund’s black and yellow ribbons were last tied to the trophy and we want it back.
And Monaco? They are younger than us; faster, stronger and they really score goals. They knocked six past Manchester City in the last round, they have managed 88 in the French league this season. Something has to give. This could be a classic. The visitors start as favourites. The two sides have never met before.
I meet with The Sarge before the game. The Sarge is a veteran of the Falklands War who lives here with his German wife and half German kids. We sit outside a pub. In the background, red and white fireworks are exploding. The French are having a party.
The Sarge gives tourist advice for Scotland to the other patrons. Dressed in our kilts, we attract a lot of attention and get a lot of visitors to our table. We fill up on beer because we will get none in the stadium. We move on to the beer garden by the ground.
Two guys in kilts isn’t an unusual sight at a Dortmund football game. We are a Scottish club. Two of our hall-of-famers are Scots, we have a supporters’ club in Edinburgh and there are more of us living here than you would ever think. Tonight we are a whole Highland regiment, decked out in our dress uniform of kilts and black-and-yellow scarves.
Our definition of “Highland” is broad. I am a Lowlander; my last British address was in Sheffield. Ardbegman tells of how from the house he was born in he could see the lights of Calais. Griggs jokes that from his bedroom window you “couldnae see nothin’ but fuckin’ oil rigs.” All aspects of Scottish life are here, transported to Germany. Ancestral, diasporic, Scottish by absorption; Catholic and Protestant; Rangers and Celtic; Yes and No.
We are all soldiers in the black-and-yellow army but some have more military experience than others. The Cold War is what brought most of these guys here; love is what kept them. Dortmund was a soldiers’ town; Britain is a part of this city. Normally you would never know we were here but tonight we are in uniform and we are proud. “Ladies from Hell” is what the German soldiers called the Scots during the First World War. Tonight it is Monaco who will face the Highland charge.
The Monegasques need not fear. The worst things they are likely to suffer are my French and Ardbegman’s whisky. We clink plastic glasses with visiting fans and share jokes. Comrades in sport.
For most of our troop, the big political event of the last couple of weeks is not the Brexit, it is the death of Martin McGuinness. The Irish Republican leader’s death is a controversial topic. Most here remember him as a terrorist, a killer of innocents. Some remember him as a peacemaker, the sinner who saw the light and helped bring Northern Ireland into a more peaceful age. But most remember him better than I ever will because they saw him up close. Many here served in the Northern Ireland conflict, some actually met the man.
Most of us are more closely connected to Ireland’s Troubles than we’d ever thought about. I tell the story about how I once sold a holiday to Ian Paisley’s official biographer.
“Ian Paisley?” says Jeffo. “Ian Paisley was the biggest cunt ever to walk God’s earth”
Opinions are exchanged. The Unionist leader is also often called a terrorist. A hypocrite. A sinner who saw the light. A man of peace like McGuinness. Each one of us will remember these men either as brutal murderers or as enlightened peacemakers. History must remember them as both. Should we even be discussing the dead in this way? The discussion becomes heated.
“I tell you who really was a cunt” I say.
“Osama Bin Laden. Biggest cunt ever to walk the planet. Wanker. May Allah strike me down if it is not so!”
Allah does not strike me down.
“Do you know what was the last thing that went through his head before he died? An American soldier’s bullet.”
“Now I know what you’re thinking: You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead because the dead can’t defend themselves. But to be honest, if he’d ever been able to defend himself he wouldn’t be in this sticky situation right now.”
Laughter. I am happy to speak ill of the dead. The dead are immune from the harm they have caused.
The Gaffer goes off to get another round of beers. And here comes the irony.
He returns with his beers and some bad news which he is struggling to convey.
“Listen guys, this isn’t a joke…it looks like the game will be postponed because they’ve found a bomb.”
We believe him, of course we do. We check on our phones but details are sketchy and the reception is poor. Sixty-five thousand people are checking for facts at the same time. One thing is clear: if this is true then there will be no game tonight.
It seems wrong to panic. We do not have enough information to react in any way but normally. Where is the bomb? Here? Inside the stadium? Has anyone been hurt? Who knows? The only thing we can do is keep calm and carry on.
The thing about European games is that they really are European. We talk to Monaco fans from Turkey and Ukrainian farmers living in Denmark. Ardbegman hangs his scarf around the Ukrainian’s neck as a gesture of solidarity with his own Danish ancestors. Dortmund’s army come in peace: We are a friendly bunch and we look after our guests. We drink beer and Ardbeg.
The details are coming through. A bomb has exploded near our team bus and one of our players is injured. There will be no game. From somewhere we hear loudspeaker announcements. They are too far away to understand. No matter, we guess what the drill should be. No panic, let the police and security do their job.
We stand, we drink, we talk. Belfast is the topic now: old soldiers’ tales of bombs on staircases and bathroom sinks dropped from ninth floor windows onto unsuspecting patrols below. Again we are reminded that we are closer to terrorism than we think.
We take our leave after an hour or so. The crowds are thinning now. We know that nobody has been seriously injured. We have a new kickoff time. “See you tomorrow” we say to each other. The Gaffer and I walk back into town together. He has the bus driver on the phone. Borussia Dortmund is a big club but is a close-knit one. At moments like these we are one big family.
We walk past one pub but cannot walk past the next one, not on a night like this. Two beers please, shaken but not stirred. Around the world, the news is spreading. In Dortmund we are looking for spare rooms for the French fans. We are practical people, we are warm and we are inclusive. I check my phone. Fans of rival teams are sending their best wishes. People across the world are sending their best wishes.
The game will go ahead tomorrow and we will be there. The yellow line will not be broken. Here we stand. We can do no other.