15 JUNE 1996, Page 63


Sassenachs beware?

Simon Barnes

SCOTLAND'S ambitions of global conquest are traditionally obscured by their obsession with the place on the other side of the wall. This is as true in football as it is in any other matter — nothing can be contemplated before the settling of the English Question.

England and Scotland are the oldest rivals in international football, but the sides have not played each other for seven years. The rivalry has dimmed, but only in the south. What negotiation could not achieve has been done by a roll of the dice; the draw for the European football champi- onship pits England and Scotland against each other on Saturday.

Now certainly the match will not be with- out its points of interest, in a parochial sort of way. But it is poor news for veteran Jock- watchers, who enjoy watching Scotland play on the larger stage. When it comes to major international football tournaments, Scot- land have the football world's most glorious affinity to disaster. This is mixed with the most wondrous heroism, for heroism is always more wondrous in a losing cause, and also with the most wondrous farce. Try imagining Oedipus scripted by Feydeau, and you are getting there; a hero nobly con- fronting his destiny with his trousers round his ankles.

In the World Cup of 1974, the Scottish team's habit of singing catches and lays deep into the night brought complaints from, of all people, the Mexican team — who were all tucked up in bed by 10.30 p.m. This was a scandal, but the Scots were to build on this performance in 1978, perhaps the most glorious period of Scottish foot- balling history.

They were managed by the great Ally MacLeod, a man who, in the joke of the time, thought tactics were a kind of pepper- mint. The Scots were, once again, accused of being a bunch of drunks — amazing how often that one comes up, isn't it? They missed a penalty in the opening match and lost to Peru. After that, one of their play- ers, Willie Johnston, failed a dope test, in what was then a major scandal. The Scots could only draw their next match with Iran, mainly because they conceded an own goal.

To qualify for the next stage, all they needed to do was to beat the tournament favourites, Holland, by three clear goals and the Dutch had a team that is still spo- ken of as one of the finest ever to play the game. That only brought out in the Scots the doomed heroism, the Oedipus within. They did, indeed, score three goals, one of them, from Archie Gemmill, as good a goal as the World Cup has ever seen. However — and Scotland's World Cup history is full of howevers — Holland scored two and went through.

In the World Cup of 1990, Scotland beat Sweden and lost by a single goal to Brazil, playing some magnificent football and looking the better side against, again, the tournament favourites. However, they had already lost their opening match to Costa Rica, not known as a major footballing power, and so went out. 'Just one thing,' said one of their players afterwards. 'Don't say we were as bad as England.'

Alt yes, England, Scotland's England. The point of Saturday's match is that at last Eng- land are not a distraction from but a step on the way towards world domination. Will that inspire the Scots to dizzy heights of glory at last, qualifying ahead of England, marching on to lay waste other nations?

Unlikely, according to a reading of form, though form is traditionally irrelevant to England-Scotland games. And anyway, if Scotland did beat England, they would almost certainly go on to lose 7-0 to Switzerland, thereby allowing England to qualify on goal difference. For the Scottish football team, there is no glory without dis- aster, but it is also true, in Scottish football as in most other matters, that no disaster is without its aspects of glory.