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The world is a dark place. Look for the helpers.

Whenever something awful happens, look for the people who run to help. All across the country, people will make up beds on their couches for strangers, shuttle injured folk to hospital when the ambulances are overstretched, and use social media to reunite children with frantic families. The world can be a cheerless, dark and frightening place, but you will always, always, always find people coming together to make it better. 

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First published in The National, 1 June 2017

We need to remember that. We need to remember the good news stories and the quiet decency of regular folk.

And so this week, I'd like to talk about a small yet determined group of Scottish football fans cycling up from Wembley to Glasgow.

The Tartan Army - the award-winning Tartan Army, recipients of the Belgian Olympic Committee's annual Fair Play Prize in recognition of their sportsmanship – prides themselves on being one of the friendliest travelling supporter groups in international football.  

Flash back to 1999, after the Scotland qualifier against Bosnia Herzegovina. Ally MacIver, an engineer from Aberdeen, is talking to Mirza Muminovic, a medical student who worked as translator during the civil war in Bosnia. The translator tells them about Kemal Karic, an orphan who lost the lower part of one leg in a bomb explosion. Kemal’s mother was killed by mortar shelling while trying to save him, and he was rescued by Toni Capuozzo, an Italian journalist who smuggled him out of the city in the trunk of his car and kept him safe until the war was over. 

Instead of murmuring ‘that’s awful’ and leaving it at that, the fans decided to do something about it, raising money to buy a new prosthetic limb for Kemal and ensure he had somewhere to live. There was even enough money left over to donate to a worthy cause at the next Scotland away game, this time in Lithuania. The Zagare Orphanage received £1000 and 100 backpacks stuffed with pencils, cuddly toys, sweeties, and other little toys.  

And so began something beautiful, with the Tartan Army Sunshine Appeal making donations at every Scotland away game. The money is generally given to organisations for disadvantaged and chronically ill children, whether it’s providing medical care for children with impaired vision in Ukraine, funding incubator units for premature babies in Croatia, or building a playground at a psycho-neurological hospital in Moldova. 

I’m a big fan of folk rolling up their sleeves and getting things done, and so I hope the Sunshine Appeal won’t mind me singing their praises this week. Now more than ever we need to be reminded that there are huge groups of thoroughly decent people who will toil away, doing good for the benefit of children they’re never likely to meet, but making a world of difference. 

In 2016 alone, good work by the Tartan Army included giving £5000 to a school for deaf children in the Czech Republic, helping a Maltese organisation pay for school uniforms for refugees, and donating to a Slovakian charity that helps young children to cope with bereavement, bullying and other issues that can impact on their mental wellbeing. 

Helping the Sunshine Appeal raise funds is a tartan army of loyal supporters aiding the group with fan events and merchandise. The fact that they’re able to generate thousands of pounds to give away every year is absolutely staggering, and speaks deeply of all the best bits of football fans, who can be a somewhat unfairly demonised group at time

Now Scotland fans are going to spend 6th -10th June cycling from Wembley Stadium to Hampden Park, arriving in Glasgow for the Scotland v. England world cup qualifier, and raising more money to give away.

In times of political turmoil and cowardly attacks by those who want to spread fear and hatred, it’s natural to want to circle the wagons and turn inward. But we have far more in common than that which divides us, to paraphrase Jo Cox.

Look for the helpers, said Mr Rogers.

It behoves us all to look out for each other, and it does a body good to see organisations like the Tartan Army Sunshine Appeal going out there and being ambassadors for Scotland on the global stage. I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing them the best of luck for their cycle and in their future events. 

Oh, and Kemal? The Tartan Army’s first adopted son finally made it to Scotland, and stepped onto the pitch as Scotland’s team mascot during their Euro 2008 qualifier against Italy at Hampden Park.