Letter from Australia 65 – Caniggia and Christ
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Sometimes I miss Dundee. I miss Baxter Park, the Ferry, the Dighty, Balgay observatory, St Peters, the Tay Bridge….and much more. But this week I was especially missing Dens Park…when I saw the documentary commemorating the great Claudio Caniggia coming to humble Dundee. I miss football – I haven’t quite managed to get into Australian Rules, or Rugby League here. I miss the walk along Clepington Road, down past Tannadice (the field of nightmares) on to Dens, the field of dreams. I miss the Bovril and the Peh! I miss the terrace banter. I even miss the Arabs!
It was an extraordinary time. I was chaplain at the club which means, as far as Peter Marr the owner told me, I was like a priest in confessional – I couldn’t speak about what went on in the inner sanctums. I would love to. I doubt anyone would believe me – but it was surreal beyond measure. Maybe after twenty years the vow of silence can be broken – a little! There are some things I will have to take to my grave!
One of the stories I can tell is one that I think is apocryphal but was doing the rounds when I was at Dens. Caniggia, who had a previous history with drugs, was in the Riverside Tesco’s and approached one of the assistants – “Where can I find the coke?”. The young man responded –“You can’t get it here, but if you wait until I knock off, I can get you some.”! Another story (told in the documentary) was how Caniggia used to nip into the toilet for a ‘roll up’. Or the time that Mrs Caniggia came up to the Tully journalist with an incredulous look on her face as she held out a tin of canned macaroni! “Macaroni in a tin? That’s not possible!”. She was clearly a woman who lacked taste for the finer things of life – she even insisted on living in Edinburgh rather than Dundee!
One of the great surreal moments was standing in the Bobby Cox (normally the away end) for the home debut of Caniggia. The atmosphere was electric – not least when he scored!
Although we went on to lose I knew we were in for an incredible season. Like many other Dundee fans, I could not believe that a world superstar was actually playing for us. There was one moment in particular which has stuck in my memory. Two Motherwell players gave Caniggia a ‘welcome to Scottish football’ tackle! He went crunching to the ground – then, belying the South American stereotype of rolling around as though he had been shot – he sprang to his feet and got on with running rings round them. I will never forget the big grin on his face. He just loved football. As Barry Smith, the team captain, says in the documentary – there were no airs and graces.
Stevie Milne talks about how they were on the training ground in Broughty Ferry and Caniggia just came running on. He trained at the Michelin and just down from our house at Caird Park. And it wasn’t just Caniggia. We had the likes of Nemzadze, Cabellero, Fan Zhyi, Nacho Novo, Speroni, Brent Sancho…..and of course Juan Sara.
So why does any of this matter? Because sport is a great gift – and sport, especially football in Scottish towns and cities, is a form of community involvement which brought great benefits to the community. It is significant that many football teams started with churches – the other big community uniters. Football used to be the last bastion of working-class solidarity (it spread throughout all classes but was always rooted in the working class) – but now it is being gentrified, commercialised and turned into a corporate product, rather than a community unifier.
Sometimes sitting in the stands at Dens, I would see three generations together. This was more than watching 22 men kicking round a ball. It was more than glory hunting (we were after all following Dundee. This was about community, ritual, friendship, entertainment, collective joy and mourning. It is little wonder that for some it became a replacement for religion.
The only problem is that when you invest your hopes, time, money in a football team and have players or managers as your heroes/functional saviours – they will let you down. I did not know Caniggia well, but even from the beginning I knew it would end it tears. It did – although we had some fun on the way. He went to Rangers – in circumstances that were not good. All I will say is that the level of politics, corruption and greed in Scottish football were high in those days. For anyone who doubts the doctrines of original sin (we are all sinful) and total depravity (sin affects every part of our lives) I could provide plenty proof from Scottish football!
The reasons why the great Dundee experiment, of which Caniggia was just a flamboyant part, did not work are many. I won’t list them here (that is for another day) – but at the end of the day it just simply boils down to the fallibility of human saviours. The bible tells us that we not to trust in ‘princes’ (ie.politicians). Equally we should not trust in footballers to meet our needs.
One of the things about Scottish football in general, and Dundee FC in particular, is that it is not the losing, but the hope that kills you! Every game you head to you have a vague hope you might win. Every new season you almost believe the hype about the new players, and wonderful pre-season the team have had. You head in with some hope. So, it was this week. Our opening game was against Hearts – I thought we had a good chance. Because of the timing I was even able to listen to some of it before heading to the men’s breakfast at church. My hopes lasted 13 minutes – the time Hearts scored the first of six goals against us!
During these years of chaplaincy, I had opportunities to share the good news of Christ with many people – staff, players, fans. And there were Christians who ministered to me. One Wednesday night I was heading home from the prayer meeting, and unusually I was quite discouraged (prayer meetings invariably have the opposite effect for me!). Dundee were playing at home and I knew I was in time to get the second half. I slipped into the main stand (I had an access all areas pass) and sat close to the home dugout, feeling quite flat and pleading with the Lord to grant some encouragement. Juan Sara (another Argentinian) scored and ran towards the dugout and, as was his wont, lifted up his shirt to reveal a t-shirt with a slogan on it. Normally it said, ‘Jesus Loves You’, but this time is was a quote from Philippians – “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength’. God can speak to us in the strangest of places!
Australia, like Dundee, is sporting mad. I love sport and do consider it to be a gift from God. But, like any of God’s gifts, if we worship the gift, rather than the Giver – we end up losing both. Is it not also the case that we identify with a particular sporting team so that we can boast (Rangers, Everton and All Blacks fans will be boasting today)? Annabel and I listened to this wonderful sermon today – Boasting in Nothing Except the Cross by Tim Keller….stunning and beautiful….
Enjoy and have a great week – may you know what it is to boast in the Cross.
Yours in Christ,
Dundee stories –
Ej and the swearing ….
Jim Duffy –
The Italians wanting a cappuccino.
The request to scatter ashes.
Khisanishvelli – 5 million player. Eammon Bannon ….on the train because they thought I spoke Russian and Italian –
The hair man? Brent Sancho….Tam Cowan…Rasta….
Nacho Novo – new pair of boots for every game…
DI Stefano’s chaplain – wanted a dog collar – with a gun.
Fan Zhyi – China…..
You people are like the mafia – you are everywhere….Bob Hynd.
The t-shirts and the 100 skinheads.
Juan being booked at St Mirren for his Jesus Loves You t-shirt.
Giving thanks at the fundraiser.
The funeral (see blog).
House broken into and access all areas past left.
4:0 against Hibs….
The Bonetti brothers – useless manager.