From World Cup to non-League the pre-match exchanges unite football at all levels
4 January ~ Approaching October’s Rangers v Livingston Scottish Challenge Cup match I felt a fleeting buzz of European competition. From outside you can subconsciously glimpse the ceiling of the Ibrox trophy room, decorated with continental club pennants – including Boavista’s distinctive chequers.
Ten years earlier, before an actual Champions League match in Porto, I wangled my way into Boavista’s Estádio do Bessa. The Rangers pennant I’d seen Terry Butcher present before the Glasgow leg of a 1986-87 UEFA Cup match leapt off the trophy room wall in the way your club’s crest always does when surrounded by strangers.
The pennant unites the World Cup final with non-League social clubs and the bedrooms of young fans – it’s regalia and sportsmanship distilled. Exchanging them is one moment of guaranteed peace and respect in any big match. And every pennant your club owns demands that another, the one swapped for it, decorates the wall of a faraway boardroom, member’s bar or trophy room.
While the planet noted Brazilian mascots bellowing their national anthem before the 2014 World Cup semi-final thrashing by Germany, I’d already spotted the first of these kids was holding and dwarfed by the Brazilian federation pennant, because captain David Luiz was waving the injured Neymar’s jersey. I’m not saying that’s why Brazil lost 7-1 but even the TV schedules, shackling today’s biggest matches, won’t harass this loveliest of rituals.
Traditionally commemorated in a pre-kick-off press photo, the pennant swap can become the cherished iconography of the losing team. West Ham have captain Bobby Moore lifting the 1965 Cup-Winners Cup at Wembley; 1860 Munich have Rudi Brunnenmeier shaking hands with Moore two hours earlier, their left hands clutching invaluable mementoes.
The pennant is a heraldic, near chivalric, signifier of friendship which, at some point in the mid-20th century, replaced the floral bouquets with which touring Russian teams would embarrass their opposite numbers. While they surprised Greece and Colombia at the 2014 World Cup, their players instantly negotiated a gracious way to receive the little individual pennants – rear view mirror-compatible – which each Japan and Ivory Coast player handed to them during Group C’s team handshakes. You can have standoffishness in the tunnel and brutality over the 90 minutes, but refusing your opponent’s pennant is anathema.
And if half-and-half scarves are fans’ most controversial souvenir the pennant is the most welcome. When a Greek university friend returned home in 1998, my Scotland national team pennant was chocolates, flowers and sonnet cycle combined. When I finally saw Valencia in the flesh they felt like family because their little black bat crest, which seemed to supernaturally explain the “CF” instead of “FC”, lasted on my childhood bedroom wall longer than the bullfighting poster my gran also brought back from Spain.
Like scarves and pin badges, the pennant offers a condensed hit of a club’s colours and history. I can’t have Roberto Bettega round to host but I can have a gold-braided, black-and-white shield on my wall bearing the Scudetto, three gold stars and two European Cups. Anyone visiting my cupboard-sized spare room will know I know Juventus, that I’ve attended countless UEFA competition matches at Ibrox, that I visit grounds outside Scotland – and that I have a trigonometrical mastery of wall space involving drawing pins, string and tiny cloth triangles. Alex Anderson
Photo: Pennants adorn the wall of the member's club at Kilsyth Rangers' Duncansfield Park, taken by Colin McPherson for WSC Photography