Thursday night sees the biggest Scotland match since… well, last month’s match against Israel to be honest.
October’s penalty shootout victory, where we showed other nations just how simple it is to win them by just scoring all of yours and saving one of theirs, set Scotland’s mens national team up with a playoff match in Serbia where the winner will qualify for next summer’s European Championships. While for Serbia it would be successive major tournament qualifications after they played in Russia in 2018, for Scotland we are looking to qualify for our first major tournament in 23 years.
France 98 seems a lifetime ago now… because it is. You need to be not much younger than me to even remember it as a fan, but whole generations of Scotland players have come and gone in that time. You only need to look at our goalkeepers David Marshall and Craig Gordon, two senior members of the current Scotland squad, and realise that they both made their Scotland debuts a full six years after that tournament took place.
Think of the players that have come and gone in that period, players that made a mark on the Scotland team but never got to play at a major tournament. People like Kenny Miller, James McFadden, Gary Caldwell, Shaun Maloney, Don Hutchison. They all scored crucial goals for Scotland along the way, yet their entire international careers have fallen within these wilderness years. Captains like Scott Brown and Barry Ferguson, hugely successful domestically in Scotland, never got the chance to lead the team out at a major tournament.
This week is the closest we’ve come since we travelled to the Netherlands with a 1-0 lead in 2003, and even that was seventeen years ago. We’ll not focus too much on what happened next…
The only other playoff we’ve achieved since our last qualification was in 1999 when we travelled to England and won 1-0, but since we had lost at home 2-0 a few days before we failed to qualify for Euro 2000.
Those playoff defeats, as disappointing as they were at the time, aren’t really where we’ve continually tripped ourselves up though. Countries like England and Netherlands expect to qualify every time and are favourites to do so. It’s been defeats in places like Georgia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Norway, Wales and Kazakhstan that have killed our hopes in successive campaigns.
There was a time when we used to save these disappointments for the tournaments themselves. Iran and Peru in 1978, Costa Rica in 1990, Morocco in 1998 – games we expected to win and failed miserably because we underestimated our opponents. Now we’d give a lot just to be there.
I am in no way in love with football the way I used to be. On top of just being a lot older than I was when all that mattered in life was football and Scotland used to qualify things, I’ve never subscribed more to the thought that “football is nothing without the fans” than I do now. A global pandemic to me is more important than anything on the park, and without a real atmosphere I find myself more and more feeling that it really is “just a game”.
I also think it’s highly questionable that we are sending players around the world to play international football in this climate, and the fact that several key players were missing from the three games last month because of it is clear evidence of that. There were also plenty of players who returned to their clubs last month but couldn’t play due to either having the virus or being near someone who did. When it’s affected players like Cristiano Ronaldo, eyebrows will be raised!
You can just about play football in a club bubble, but international football is bursting that on a monthly basis and I’m just not sure it’s worth the risk when domestic seasons are already on a knife edge with games crammed in as much as possible and postponements already causing headaches for several teams. European football isn’t far behind international football on the questionable side either.
But for all my head says that, in my heart it’s different. Scotland are somewhat frozen in time there. Part of me is still back in 1998, a sixteen year old still immensely proud that we got to open the tournament against Brazil and yet still shellshocked at how we lost to Morocco in that final game. It was the end of a decade where Scotland played in four of the five tournaments that took place. My very first experience of going to a football match was a warm up match for Italia 90 at Hampden eight years earlier. My own formative footballing years are tied closely to the national team.
Scotland qualifying for tournaments is something very much from my childhood. I came into football knowing that Scotland just always went to the World Cup, and even USA 94 was just a blip because in the 90s we even qualified for the Euros too. So the possibility of doing so again now immediately touches on my childhood and its that youthful enthusiasm from back then that starts to bubble through.
Back in my head though, I’m under no illusions. I know the performances last month weren’t great. The Nations League matches were better than the playoff, and while we got clean sheets there was still a feeling that it was as much to do with the profligacy of the strikers we were facing as it was to do with our own defending. My hope is that the confidence from those results continues to improve the performances because we’re going to need it not just for the playoff final but for the remaining Nations League matches as well.
Serbia are odds on favourites to qualify, and rightly so. They are the home team, they beat Norway to get here and many people – myself included – thought Norway were favourites to win the playoffs. Despite problems getting a few keys players from Italy because of the pandemic, they have managed to do that and only captain Aleksandar Kolarov is a doubt. That means Sergej Milinković-Savić, who scored the goals to beat Norway, is fit and ready to finish the job against Scotland. Filip Đuričić, who scored against Scotland back in 2013, isn’t in the squad but they do have Real Madrid’s Luka Jović and Fulham’s Aleksandar Mitrović.
There’s goals in this Serbia team, and coupled with a defence who managed to keep out the likes of Erling Haaland and Mohamed Elyounoussi last month it is clearly a daunting task for a Scotland team who have struggled to find a settled and confident defence and a star striker in Leigh Griffiths who has yet to complete 90 minutes for his club.
But maybe all of this fits exactly what we need. The odds are against us rather than us being favourites, which is usually when we blow it away from home. It’s not one of Europe’s big hitters that we’re up against, like in 1999 and 2003, Serbia were in the third tier of the Nations League the same as we were. They are a good team, they do have some quality individual players at their disposal, but they are by no means streets ahead of us.
We got this far by scraping our way past Israel. The game was ugly as sin, the penalties were nerve wracking for those of us watching on, but we got there and if we can scrape by again on Thursday night then no one in Scotland is going to care how we did it. If someone offered me another 0-0 and penalty shootout victory then I would grab it with both hands right now. Although if Griffiths wants to come off the bench to score a 94th minute winning free kick, that would definitely be preferable!
Scotland are daring to dream again. We’re far from confident, and with a tough opponent standing in our way following 22 years of multiple disappointments that’s understandable, but there’s at least a belief that we can join the other 23 teams at the European Championships and finally end our long exile from the big stage. Sometimes all you need is belief and a bit of luck.