Theres no getting away from it. The draw for Euro 2008
is a real boot where it hurts the most as far as Scotland
are concerned. As if having to face France
wasnt bad enough the Scots will also have to take on the Ukraine
who topped their World Cup qualifying group. Georgia
represent an unknown but dangerous new opponent while no one will need reminding of past disasters in Lithuania
and the Faeroes
So while there are plenty of reasons to be fearful of what lies ahead, are there any crumbs of comfort we can draw on to give us hope that Scotland might qualify from this toughest of groups?
Well, if you look hard enough, there are always grounds for optimism. The main one being the seemingly perverse fact that we wont be at the World Cup Finals. Why, you ask, is that in our favour? Because, often, teams that do well at the World Cup dont repeat that form in the European Championships (France in 1984 and 2000 being a notable exception, other than them not a single winner of the European Championship since the competition expanded beyond four teams in 1980 has had a successful time at the preceding World Cup
). Countries that have good World Cups tend to keep the team together regardless of age as an act of loyalty for doing well and out of coaches fears of breaking up a team too early.
Conversely countries that flop at the World Cup Finals often embark on a mass clear-out, with an eye to the next global rather than the looming continental contest. As a result old favourites retire or are discarded as new coaches and new players come in and the team can take time to gel.
Would we cry too much if Zidane
decided theyd seen enough of international football? And theres a real chance that almost half the Italian team will be different from the one we are familiar with as Cannavaro, Nesta, Del Piero, Vieri
all wind down their international careers. As for the Ukraine neither Rebrov
will be looking forward to their 30th birthdays by the time the qualifiers get under way.
But perhaps thats too optimistic. After all, one of Walter Smiths
first acts was to recall Davie Weir.
As we wont know how our opponents will fare until this summer we wont know what sort of mood the three top seeds in our group will be in. But we do know what their current form is like by looking at their World Cup qualifiers. Italy
of course won Scotlands group. They won all their home games, if sometimes by the skin of their teeth, but were less successful away, dropping points to Scotland and Norway and losing in Slovenia.
qualified without losing a game but thats not quite as impressive as it sounds for they drew half their matches. Unlike Italy, the French were vulnerable at home, dropping points against Israel, Ireland and Switzerland. They also drew away to the Israelis and the Swiss.
As for the Ukraine,
yes, they had a tremendous qualifying record. Their only loss was at home to Turkey after qualification was assured. But they drew four times, against Greece at home, Denmark away and both games against Georgia.
Those draws should tell us the Georgians
are no mugs. They also beat Albania at home and Kazakhstan away and picked up a point in Turkey. But they can have their off-days. Their home draw with Kazakhstan was the only time the latter avoided defeat in twelve games. And when Georgia lose they do so big time, 5-2 at home to Turkey and 6-1 in Denmark.
only victories in the qualifiers came against San Marino but their draws at home and away against Belgium did much to eliminate that country from qualifying contention. They also drew at home with Spain and away to Bosnia. Our old friends the Faeroes
managed a draw in Cyprus but lost every other game.
What we can read into this is that we are not the only country prone to grief at the hands of the so-called minnows. Every single one of our opponents experienced bad results in their groups. And our very lack of success may also count in our favour in another way. For while the three top seeds will make all the right sort of platitudinous noises about how much they respect us, dont be fooled for a minute. Both France and Italy expect to qualify and the country theyre afraid of is the Ukraine, nobody else. Good results for Scotland would be these countries slitting each others throats with a series of draws which might, just might, allow us to sneak in through the back door,
But to do that we need to restore Fortress Hampden. For 50 years, between 1954-2004 Scotland lost just two World Cup qualifiers at the national stadium. Between October 2004 and October 2005 we lost two more
We must look to win our home games, all of them and scavenge what we can away. Yes its a tall order but to be fair we have been the recipients of plenty of good draws in the past. But this is certainly the hardest group we have been placed in since the qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup. And we know what a disastrous campaign that was.
Speaking of disastrous campaigns it seems that the Blame Berti brigade were out in force after the Euro draw was made. We have, apparently, slipped down to fourth seeds solely because of the disastrous impact of Herr Vogts on our national team. Rubbish, or in deference to the former coach, Ballacks. The Ukraine have just enjoyed the most successful spell of their short existence yet they still have to play France and Italy.
The truth is we have been slipping down the rankings for some time. Our results under Vogts didnt help but nor are they responsible for where we find ourselves. Why, apart from xenophobia, does our sporting press persist in the delusion that all that is wrong in Scottish international football is the fault of the German? For the day will come when we cant blame Berti any more. It should already have dawned. The first 45 minutes of the match against Belarus at Hampden was the worst this writer has seen from any Scotland side since Iran in 1978. This was, lest our scribes have forgotten, some six qualifying games after the departure of Vogts. We are in grave danger of constructing another national myth, one in which Vogts assumes the role previously reserved for Ally McLeod. National scapegoat.
In the meantime one of the crucial aspects of the qualifiers will be when the dates for the fixtures are agreed. With twelve qualifying games to play it is inevitable that there will be some double-headers as well as games near the end or beginning of the season.
To that end the Scots will do well to avoid the ex-Soviet countries at the start of our season when theirs are all already well under way and look perhaps to take on the Italians in August or September, before the traditional start of their season. Back in the days of the much-maligned Ernie Walker
and Jim Farry
these fixture meetings often came out to Scotlands advantage. This is something we have missed of late.
Farry was in charge at the SFA the last time Scotland competed in the Kirin Cup
in Japan but that was in an off-year between major tournaments. Perhaps he would have thought differently about Scotlands participation this time.
For this is one tournament we should not be going anywhere near. The arguments put forward in favour of it are specious to say the least. First, its nowhere near the prestigious tourney it has been made out to be. The current holders are Peru and the United Arab Emirates. You will never hear a Middlesbrough or Newcastle supporter claiming their Kirin Cup wins as highlights of their clubs histories. And since it moved to an international-only set-up in 1992 no country involved in one of the big competitions (Japan excepted) has taken part in the same year a major tournament has been played.
The SFA pointed out that it was in 1995 in Japan that Paul Lamberts
international career started. Their spin doctors could teach Alastair Campbell a thing or two. Lambert played for 37 minutes in one game and for less than a quarter of an hour in the second. Also making their debuts were Brian Martin
and Paul Bernard
though the SFA conveniently forgot to mention this.
In any case it isnt necessary to travel halfway round the world to give a player his international debut
They also said that the year after playing in Japan Scotland qualified for Euro 96. As if the two events were somehow connected. The salient fact they omitted here was that the qualifying competition was more than halfway through
when Scotland went to Japan, not just about to start.
It was also suggested that the dates for this competition were more convenient for the players rather than playing friendlies at home against World Cup contenders when our players would be on holiday. Two facts omitted here. Firstly, the dates for the Kirin Cup rule out any player involved in the Scottish Cup Final. Secondly, the best players in the world wont be on holiday, they will be preparing for the World Cup.
The SFA have passed up on a once in a generation opportunity to take their pick of the worlds best sides and bring them to Hampden for next to nothing
. Only once previously have Scotland failed to qualify for a World Cup taking place in Europe. That was in 1966. On that occasion Scotland played host to Portugal
. Our players got the chance to compete with the best in the world including Eusebio,
top scorer in the 1966 Finals, and the incomparable Pele
. The matches were played in late June and no one complained about that.
It was a fantastic experience for the players, great occasions for the supporters and a welcome boost to the coffers.
This year they had the chance to do the same. Barring the three teams in our Euro qualifying group and England
(who would not want to risk fan trouble so close to the finals
) we could have had our pick of the rest of the contenders and at zero cost. Even Brazil dont charge for warm-up games the way they do for run-of-the-mill friendlies.
On top of everything else it would have given our team the chance to face some of the best in the world just months before the start of the Euro qualifiers. Going to Japan to play sub-standard sides does little to prepare us for facing France, Italy and the Ukraine. Playing Germany, Spain, the Czechs or Holland at home would. And while squaring up to Brazil or Argentina would do little in terms of meeting European opponents, games against the Latin American giants would have filled Hampden Park.
Going to Japan is one of the most short-sighted decisions taken in recent years.
Its almost as if we are trying to pretend the World Cup isnt happening. The only redeeming aspect of it is the comic attempt by the media to dress it up as something important.
Its a sideshow and worse than that a sideshow we need not be concerned with when we have such a wonderful opportunity to play top class opponents at home. One wonders what the response would have been had Herr Vogts suggested such a tour. Let us hope that even at this late date the SFA see sense, cancel this tour and start arranging a few friendlies against the best in the world. If our fans dont have the opportunity to see their team in competition against the best, at least give them the opportunity to see the best at close quarters.
As it stands, in order to get to the Alps, Scotland will have to climb Everest first. Maybe a couple of rousing results at Hampden would help the players as they start out in the foothills.
Apologies for the lack of apostrophes, dashes and quotation marks which should appear in this article. This is the result of an HTML editor gone awry rather than the poor grammar of the writer (I hope).