When the Scottish Writers national football team finally arrive in the small Tuscan settlement of Barga, there is not much evidence to support the local claim to be "the most Scottish town in Italy." Even though they are shrouded now by dusk, the medieval churches and narrow streets of the town tumble down from the foothills in a manner which is most unlike that of Hamilton or Airdrie, and the weather, to put it one way, is unseasonably hot. On the lower tiers of fountains, reptiles watch us as we pass, and the squat, darkly gleaming convoy which carries us through town is quietly threaded with scooters and tiny, vintage cars.
A few turns later and the track becomes winding and dusty, and when we emerge again it is at the entrance to the Villa Gherardi, the hotel which we will share with tomorrow's opponents, the Italians, for the next couple of days. As we step down from out of the cars, instinctively we spread ourselves across the vast, sun-crisp lawn, staring at the squat marvel of the hotel with a kind of awed apprehension, as if it is an alien spaceship newly come to Earth. Photos are taken, cellophane torn from cigarette packets. The air is shimmering with the last of the evening sun and, fenced off from the rest of the world, the ash on the hotel's football court stirs listlessly in the heat. Somewhere across town, the rhythmic strokes of a hammered nail ring out like shots in a Western.
And, indeed, if Barga was never the scene for an old Spaghetti Western, it ought to have been. The pale, sandy pastels of the villas, their windows narrow, their shutters wooden. The streets just wide enough for one big man alone. The general store. And everywhere, now, the posters, outside the caserma dei Carabinieri, up on the walls of the Cinema Roma, breathless in their anticipation of tomorrow's duel in the sun: Italia – Scozia.
It is the weekend of Tuscany's first ever Scottish Festival, a grand fiesta celebrating the cross-exchange of culture between Scotland and Barga which has been ongoing ever since the early rounds of emigration in the 19th century. There will be ceilidh dancing, lectures, music, traditional Scottish cuisine, and, on Saturday, a match between the Scotland Writers football team and our Italian counterparts. The game, which will take place at the town's local stadio, is set to commemorate (at least in part) the most celebrated of the Scots-Italians to have called Barga his home – Giovanni "Johnny" Moscardini.
Johnny Moscardini has more than a good shout to be the best Scottish player you've never heard of. Born in Falkirk in 1897, Moscardini went on to rack up seven goals in only nine appearances for his country; an impressive enough international career by anybody's standards, even if the country had not been Italy, as it was. In 1921, whist playing for Lucchese in his father's homeland, Moscardini became one of the earliest of the Oriundi, the foreign-born diaspora who were later to make the Azzurri the champions of the world. His debut, against Switzerland, saw him find the net in a 1-1 draw.
For the scribblers of the Scottish writers team, the passage to Italy has been a hop and a jump; but for Johnny Moscardini, the journey was much more arduous. Vittorio Pozzo, the Italian manager of the 1930s, continuously defended his recruitment of foreign-born players, citizens like any other, who in his eyes were as eligible to pull on their nation's light-blue jersey as they were to fight for its army. If they can die for Italy, he said, they can play for Italy. Moscardini was a case in point. After enlisting in the Italian Army as a machine gunner at the start of World War I, he was badly wounded in the defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in 1917. He fully recuperated, and by 1918 was back on his feet and banging in the goals for AS Barga in his father's hometown. Recognition of his talents soon followed, and within a year Moscardini's robust "Scottish" of play had earned him a move to Lucchese, where he spent five seasons before moving on to shorter spells at Pisa and Genoa. With football, at this point, still an amateur game – Moscardini's win bonus, famously, was a bottle of olive oil – even Italian internationals could not afford to play indefinitely simply for the love of the game, and in 1926 Moscardini returned to Scotland, where he would manage his uncle's shop in Campbeltown. Within a year of signing off for the Italian national team with a brace against France, Moscardini had signed for Campbeltown Grammar Former Pupils, the last club of his storied career, and the only Scottish one.
Eventually, Moscardini opened up a café of his own in the small Ayrshire town of Prestwick, where he lived in obscurity until his death at the age of 88. A modest man who rarely spoke of his football career, it can be safely assumed that he would have been most uncomfortable with the weekend's hoopla in Barga, where he is still regarded as something of a cultural icon. Many residents of the town still proudly claim blood relation with him, and as we tramp down the Via Pascoli Giovanni that evening, a café with the name Bar Moscardini suggests that his family traditions live on in more than one respect.
The Shamrock, located on the other side of town from our lodgings, is an Irish pub much like any other. Guinness on the tap, football on the TV. As the Scottish team sit down there to eat, it seems strange to have come so far and yet wind up in a place so immediately familiar. The menus are handwritten, and nuanced for the occasion, with Scots cuisine which, as described in florid, sloping Italian, is by far the most foreign thing about the place. But it should be an early warning to the Scots of the possible gulf between the two teams that the Caledonian element of the bill of fare has been wiped out in its entirety by a problem with – what else? – the deep fat fryer.
It would be difficult for anyone, walking into the bar, to identify the motley selection of novelists, poets and publishers gathered around the pushed-together tables as a football team. Thirty-something, forty-something – we are not, to put it mildly, in the best condition of our lives. But the Italians, once they start to arrive, they look the part. With their dark good looks and their effortless grace, they might have come straight from the casting agency. Everyone in the bar is wearing sunglasses, even now, but only the Italians look as if they haven't stolen theirs. Yet such looks, it is to be hoped, merely flatter to deceive. Yes, when we go to bed that night, the last talk is of keeping the scoreline down. But there is secret optimism too. We wouldn't be a Scotland team without it.
Next morning, when we arrive at the Stadio Johnny Moscardini – a modest, one-stand affair with a breathtaking view of the hills – the temperature is already 29 degrees and climbing. Water bottles sit boiling on the touchline, and the Scottish faces are quickly daubed with woad-like streaks of sunscreen. Within five minutes of emerging for the warm up, we begin to feel as if the air around us is liquid fire. The Italians, meanwhile, resplendent in their all-white kit, jog in perfect unison from one touchline to the other, sweeping along the field in flurries and ebbs like foam on a sun-bright wave. An attempt to replicate the same is attempted by the Scottish team, but it doesn't take, and is instantly abandoned in the interests of team morale and health and safety. Instead, we mill around the pitch in a pantomime of guarded nonchalance, kicking a ball back and forth in a desultory fashion.
The dedication of the Stadio Johnny Moscardini in 2007
If our opposition fulfil a certain national stereotype of what an Italian football team should look like, the same cannot really be said of the Scots. There are only a couple of gingers in the team, and most of us are perfectly sober. Still, it is some consolation to see, from the depiction of him which adorns the stadium wall, that Johnny Moscardini too was of the devil's party when it came to physique, and that his rangy, whippet-like body was much more akin to that of the great Scottish strikers – Law, Dalglish, Joe Jordan, even – than of their Italian counterparts, broad-chested strongmen like Meazza or Riva.
And it is probably worth noting that Scotland's rare successes in Italian football have tended to be players who were possessed of what the Italians thought of as Scottish spirit. Denis Law, though blessed with ability, was hardly the feistiest of characters, and flopped badly at Torino. Graeme Souness, more of a thug than a hard man, is remembered with respect rather than affection for his efforts at Sampdoria. But Johnny Moscardini and Joe Jordan, men who were brave, tough, and fair – they did well by themselves in the eyes of the Italians, and it is some encouragement to us Scots, as we line up for the national anthems, that what's in our hearts might wind up counting for as much with the assembling crowd as what's in our feet. Shoulder to shoulder we stand there in the sun, and belt out Flower of Scotland as if it's that, rather than the football, which will win us the game.
And for the first five minutes at least, it seems as if it might. From the kick-off the Italians stand off us, and I am permitted to scurry all the way forward to the halfway line before punting the burden of possession aimlessly into the channel. Meanwhile, the Italians watch with what I assume is wonder, but am soon to discover is a kind of abstract curiosity, a scientific assessment of probable resistance, like invading Martians surveying Earth's defences. Twenty minutes later we are 3-0 down, and facing the rest of the game with one fit substitute.
Now, Jean-Paul Sartre said that in football, everything is complicated by the presence of the other team; and he was right, of course, insofar as every meaningful game of football is first and foremost a match against your own limitations. And as Scottish footballers we have our limitations, God knows. For 70 minutes we confront the spectre of our baser selves, and keep the Italians down to just the five. We are then basically as pleased with this achievement as if we'd won. For a nation so obscurely proud of our happy-go-lucky attitude to supporting football, the Scots sure make a right bloody psychodrama out of actually playing the game.
Afterwards, there is plenty of chat, and like many folks from the Continent, most of our Italian hosts speak English. Bizarrely, though, the residents of Barga tend to do so with a distinctly Scottish twang, regardless of their actual heritage. Our genial landlady, La Signora Adele, sounds as if she has walked in straight from rehearsals of a revival of The Steamie, and the numerous members of the local Celtic Supporters Club have Weegie accents that would put many of their East End brethren to shame. Even if a Barghigiani has never set foot on Scottish soil themselves, chances are that they learned their English from someone else who has. To visitors from the rest of the English-speaking world, this can no doubt seem disconcerting and alien – but to Scots, who spend most of their time overseas shaking their heads gravely and saying "Non inglese, scozzese", it is a wonderful, refreshing change.
And, indeed, the whole town seems to have changed when we return to it after the game. A talk on Scottish mythology is taking place outside a red phone box which has been converted into a library, and every other flag which drapes the walls is a St Andrew's cross. At a reception in the town hall, the dignitaries of the Celtic Supporters Club, as if conscious of the symbolism, are all dressed in neon away kits. Kilts are sported everywhere, and in the piazzas, small tubs of blue and white whisky-flavoured ice cream melt in the Tuscan sun.
There are downsides to all the Scottishness, of course, the first being that we are cheated of the traveller's inalienable right to be an exotic novelty wherever he goes. When we gather in the piazza that night for supper, the fact is little remarked upon by the locals, save for one old man who asks which of us is Christopher Brookmyre, and is visibly disgusted that none of us are. There are readings, and speeches, and all of it is taken completely in stride by the Barghigiani, until right at the end, when the respective team captains, Doug Johnstone and Giampaolo Simi, get out their guitars and play a couple of Scottish singalongs. Once that happens, there are no ears in Barga for anything else.
Mull of Kintyre – it's a bit like the national team, in that nobody really wants to take it seriously (for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else) but invariably they do; and so it is in Barga, where the self-satire of the Scottish singers has alchemised into sincerity long before the end of the first chorus. But it's Ally's Tartan Army which really brings the piazza to a standstill, and if there are no Scotsmen dancing on the tables by the end, it is simply because of the fragility of the tables, and perhaps (by then) the Scotsmen.
The 1978 World Cup. As a team we writers are by no means in the first flourish of our youth, but even so, several of our players (myself included) were not even born when Ally MacLeod and his Tartan Army took their fateful jaunt to Argentina. And yet everybody knows the song, apparently from birth, its lyrics stamped onto our DNA like a failed chromosome.
And we'll really shake them up
When we win the World Cup
'Cause Scotland are the greatest football team!
We didn't, and we aren't. But as the narrow streets of this medieval town ring with gallus, child-like optimism, this tongue-in-cheek evocation of a moment which is both our greatest tragedy and our finest comedy, you could believe for a moment that Scotland really are the greatest football team. Just not at football.
The evening is young, and nobody is ready for the songs to end. But they do, of course. They always do. Night has come, and high above town, the pious bell of the Church of San Cristoforo chimes into the morrow. Sinners are being called to duty, and the churches will do good business, if the wine bottles are anything to go by. Only in the Villa Gherardi does the toll go unheard, lost in the snores of the ceaselessly dreaming.
This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of The Football Pink – the Scotland edition. You can subscribe in print or digitally via their site.