Number One in the Rankings

10th September 2019

Prior to yesterday’s Scotland vs Belgium match at Hampden Park, the qualification tournament for the Euro 2020 Football Championships had reached the half-way stage. All six of the sides in Scotland’s group had played 5 of their 10 matches.

In the qualifying table, Scotland were languishing in fourth place, some distance behind Belgium and Russia, who looked to be clear favourites to take the two automatically available places for the tournament’s final stages. It appeared that Scotland’s more realistic route to the finals might be via the play-offs of a separate four-team Nations League group (currently also comprising Norway, Serbia and Finland) for which they have already qualified. (In the event of one or more of these countries qualifying by the conventional route, they would be replaced in the Nations League group).

The mood music from the Scottish management seemed to recognise these realities. The talk was of taking something from the matches against Belgium and Russia (away next month) and putting in good performances, so that some momentum could be built up for the final three games (against San Marino, Cyprus and Kazakhstan) in advance of Scotland’s participation in the Nations League group next March.

My trips to watch Scotland to play football are something of a rarity: the last occasion was a friendly match against Germany at Ibrox Stadium in March 1993. I was enticed to yesterday’s encounter largely by the prospect of seeing Belgium: third-placed at the last World Cup in Russia, currently ranked as the world’s number 1 team by FIFA and, for good measure, with a 100% record from their opening five games of Euro 2020.

I was also interested in how the Scottish supporters at the stadium would approach the game. Would it be with the traditionally raucous bravado of the tartaned hordes? Or would it reflect the pessimistic snatch of conversation that I overheard at the weekend (following Scotland’s 1-2 defeat by Russia at Hampden on Friday evening): “…Belgium will probably go 6-0 up after 20 minutes and then bring on their substitutes…”. The two perspectives are not mutually exclusive, of course.

And, indeed, it was both perspectives that were revealed.

The game was preceded by the crowd’s passionate rendition of Flower of Scotland, movingly accompanied by the strains of a sole bagpiper. Scotland’s players exploited this fervent atmosphere in the opening stages of the match, dominating possession and putting the Belgian defenders under continual pressure. Then, after eight minutes, in the visitors’ first serious attack, Kevin De Bruyne broke free down the left-hand side and measured his pass perfectly for Romelu Lukaku to calmly shoot the ball past the Scottish goalkeeper, David Marshall. At that moment, I sensed that the home supporters recognised that their basic fears had been confirmed: it would be a long evening ahead.

The crowd attempted to rally their team and Scotland, as before, enjoyed a good share of possession until De Bruyne – on the right, this time – won the ball and delivered a penetrating pass across the goal which Thomas Vermaelen swept into the net. A short time later, a De Bruyne corner was headed home by Toby Alderweireld. It was not quite 6-0 after 20 minutes, but 3-0 just after the half-hour mark was decisive enough.

It will not have got unnoticed that the common theme in this description is Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City. He is part of this so-called “Golden Generation” of Belgian footballers – which includes Lukaku (transferred this summer for £73 million from Manchester United to Juventus) and Eden Hazard (£88 million from Chelsea to Real Madrid, though absent yesterday through injury) – which is delivering to the hype. (The contrast with the unfulfilled English variant of a few years ago – Beckham, Lampard, Owen, Ferdinand et al – is palpable). In the first half, Scotland simply couldn’t cope with De Bruyne’s combination of speed, skill and awareness and, although he was less prominent after the interval, it was the same player’s emphatic finish, following a neat pass by Lukaku, that resulted in the final scoreline of 4-0.

It is difficult to see the weaknesses in the Belgian set-up, because their overall excellence extends well beyond the headline players: the goalkeeper is Thibaut Courtois of Real Madrid, the defence dealt efficiently with Scotland’s dangerous crosses into the penalty area and, in midfield, I was impressed with each of the telling contributions made by Youri Tielemans, Dries Mertens and Nacer Chadli. The fact that the Belgium starting XI was comprised of players drawn from 6 different leagues (with only Chadli playing in Belgium itself) did not affect their coherence and teamwork.

The Scottish manager, Steve Clarke, has more limited resources on which to draw. Four of his starting line-up play in the Championship (the second tier) in England and one of the substitutes, Johnny Russell, for Sporting Kansas City in the US Major Soccer League. It should be said that none of these players let him down yesterday and the goalkeeper, Marshall of Wigan Athletic, made a couple of the first-class saves in the second half to limit the overall damage on the scoreboard. Scotland looked most threatening from the direct runs at the Belgian defence of the left-back and captain, Andy Robertson.

The worrying signs surrounding the Scotland football team do not simply relate to the most recent results on the pitch. Yesterday’s attendance – to see the number one-ranked team in the world, remember – was only just over 25,500: barely half the capacity of Hampden Park or, indeed, half the size of the attendance that Celtic might expect to draw for a routine home league match against Hamilton Academicals or Ross County.

There are probably several factors that account for this relatively low turnout. Perhaps it was due to the cumulative expense faced by spectators in attending two matches in four days (the game against Russia drew over 32,000) or their familiarity with Belgium’s star players through seeing them on television (or their familiarity with the Belgium team, which also won 4-0 in a Hampden Park friendly in September last year).

However, I also wonder if it reflects a growing detachment between the country’s casual football supporters and the national side as a result of Scotland’s longstanding absence from dining at international soccer’s top table: qualification for a major football tournament has not been achieved since the 1998 World Cup. This would be of some concern: these things can take a long time to repair.

On the other hand… Come March and two matches for Scotland to win in the Nations League group in order to qualify for Euro 2020… Hampden Park’s Tartan Army might still have a role to play.

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