If anyone ever asked me who my hero is, I would answer: Tank Man. He is the anonymous person who stood in front of a column of Chinese Army tanks on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue on June 5, 1989 – the morning after the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. No-one knows his real name.
When Scotland drew Brazil at the World Cup in 1998, I knew tickets would be hard to come by. So as well as applying to the SFA, four of us paid way over the odds for tickets from an official FIFA-licensed travel agent: around £350 for a three-match package. Scalping, but blessed by FIFA, so we figured we’d at least guarantee ourselves tickets.
It turns out we were wrong.
In the weeks leading up to the tournament, calls to the agent met with the same response: “any day now”. The week before we were due to leave for Europe, we were told to collect them in Paris. When we arrived in Paris, we were told they were still waiting for their allocation.
It was the day before the game when we were told we weren’t getting any.
We made a contingency plan. We were going to head up to the ground hours before kickoff and do the old “any spare tickets” routine. “Je cherche un billet,” “I am looking for a ticket.” I’d done it loads of times in Scotland and my French was adequate. If it didn’t work, well, they’d set up big-screen TVs so people like me could watch outside.
We arrived four or five hours before the match was due to begin, but as soon as I left the station I knew I wasn’t going to be seeing Ronaldo up close. English touts were lined up outside the station door, holding scraps of cardboard with “Je cherche un billet”, “Billets”, “Tickets Wanted” scrawled in black letters. If England’s finest Arthur Daleys couldn’t get tickets, what chance did I have?
I tried; I spent at least half an hour badgering hundreds of French ticket-holders as they walked the road to the stadium. I had but a single bite: one man asked me how much. I gave him a price – I think I was offering £400 at this point – and asked if he was interested in selling. “No,” he said. “I’m just interested to know how much people are willing to pay.”
Soon after, I gave up. We went to the beer garden to watch on the big screen; at least it wasn’t raining. For the World Cup they’d set up a big screen – 20 feet wide, maybe? – on top of 40 feet of scaffolding. A few thousand Scots and Brazilians congregated on the grass underneath, not segregated but not mixing either. Tables around the outside sold shit beer in plastic cups.
There is one thing I will never forget from my hours in that place.
It isn’t John Collins penalty equaliser. It isn’t even the first sight of the replay: the slow-motion smile which spread across his face when he realises he’s sent the keeper the wrong way, the ball is going in, and he’s just equalised for Scotland against the world champions in a game being watched by a hundred million people.
It is what happened next.
The euphoria overtook one fine kilted Scotsman, who decided to climb up the scaffolding to continue his celebrations. He made it to the top then turned to salute the crowd, who roared their approval. Of course, within minutes the local gendarmes set off up the scaffolding after our happy footsoldier.
As they climbed, our man bathed in the adulation of the crowd, who were now cheering him wildly. Maybe it was the weather, maybe it was joy, but he decided to dispense with his Scotland shirt: he threw it down to his adoring support. Then, as the gendarmes closed in, our man unhooked his belt and threw his kilt sailing into the air.
Stark bollock naked save for socks and a pair of TImberlands, 40 foot up in the sunny sky, in front of thousands, our man raised his arms in victory and screamed in delight.
Below him, the Paris polis paused, to think again. Hauling someone off scaffolding is hard enough, but manhandling a naked, hairy-arsed Scotsman – surely the European Union has a law against this? After a few moments, they took the wise course of action, and to roars of laughter from the crowd, they turned tail and headed down.
Tank Man was pulled off the street by anonymous men, and no-one knows what happened to him. Some say he was taken by secret police; others say he was rescued by students. I don’t know what happened to Tank Man, and I don’t know what happened to the naked Scotsman, either. I hope they’re both doing well.