Finally, Argentinian football fans now know what it’s like to be Scottish. The country that gave us Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi could only manage a 0-0 draw against Peru in Buenos Aires last Thursday night in their World Cup qualifier. Thus, its qualification prospects “hang by a thread”. Hanging by a thread has been the default status of Scotland’s qualification prospects for any competition we have ever entered. If Scotland found themselves in a qualifying group comprising only itself and no other our prospects would still “hang by a thread”.
Argentina have had a wretched qualifying campaign, epitomised by that disappointing draw the other night. Now they face the very real prospect of failing to qualify for the finals in Russia next year, the first time in 48 years that they will have failed to reach the business end of the competition. They currently lie sixth in the South American group standings. Only the top four countries qualify automatically, with the fifth-placed team required to face New Zealand in a play-off. Argentina would have a decent chance of securing that opportunity if they won their last group match. To do this, though, they have to defeat Ecuador in the highly rarefied atmosphere of Quito, something they have failed to do since 2001.
South American football supporters are rarely calm in the face of adversity. When Brazil were beaten by Uruguay in the final of the 1950 World Cup in Rio, it was reported that at least seven people took their own lives. The goalkeeper, who was deemed to have been at fault for at least one of Uruguay’s two goals, was virtually exiled from his country. In 1969, Honduras and El Salvador fought a brief war when mounting tension between the two nations was brought to a head by rioting after a game between them. If Argentina do fail to make it to Russia, there will be national mourning.
There is surely an opportunity for some enterprising Scottish grief counsellors here. I’d be advising them to keep an eye on advertising slots in the main Argentinian newspapers. If la mierda hits el ventilador, opportunities will exist for people with a track record in dealing with the emotional aftermath of football failure. The saltire is a globally recognised kitemark of resilience in the face of disaster on the playing field.
Scottish football fans are currently at the familiar “daring to hope” stage of the road to ultimate disappointment. The last-minute victory against Slovakia at Hampden on Thursday night gives us a slim chance of qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since 1998. To do, this we must first beat Slovenia in Ljubljana this evening and then hope that this will be enough for us to be among the best second-placed teams. Then we must hope that we can avoid the likes of Portugal, Italy and Denmark in the play-offs. And even if we did we might face the prospect of running into Wales or Northern Ireland, who currently possess the best squads in their entire history. There simply isn’t enough optimism in Scotland to cover all of the hoped-for outcomes in these games.
I hate it when people say that Scotland will always struggle to achieve success because we are a small nation. Other unheralded and small nations who possess nothing of our football heritage always seem to get a wee turn now and then. Belgium are having an extended period of success while Portugal have always punched well above their weight. Denmark won the European Championships in 1992 and Greece triumphed in 2004. England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales – all have not only qualified for a World Cup or European Championship but have also managed to reach the latter stages at least once… but not Scotland.
All of these other nations get to have their time in the sun but for us it’s either winter or a watery autumn. We could have had a brilliant team in the late 1960s but failed to qualify for anything then either, due to the baffling decision to avoid choosing Celtic players from the great Lisbon Lions side who, for several years, were the best club team in Europe.
No matter how long are the odds against Scotland, we always seem to fashion a new method of increasing them. At the centre of much of this is the Scottish Football Association, a body so inept and incompetent that it seems to have modelled itself on Freedonia in the Rufus T Firefly era. In the 1990s, it ripped the soul as well as the infrastructure out of Hampden Park, one of the great amphitheatres of world football. It is now a stadium reduced in size and stature and no longer deemed fit to host any matches of global importance. It possesses all the menace and sense of occasion of a municipal movie house. It does, though, have a gargantuan and state-of-the-art corporate and executive facility.
By also deploying a pricing strategy for tickets that borders on the exploitative, it seems the SFA is very sportingly bent on sacrificing all facets of home advantage. The recent match against Malta was never going to be a sell-out but the attendance was smaller than usual owing to the SFA’s decision to charge fans £36 for the privilege. Last Thursday night, supporters were also stunned to see the Scotland team lining up for battle in a must-win encounter resplendent in pink. There is no pink anywhere in the colours of Scotland and there was no colour clash with their opponents that required them to forgo the famous dark blue. Obviously nothing must come before the opportunity to market your new second strip.
On the field, another group of honest scufflers interspersed with a handful of players with genuine talent scraped a 1-0 win against a country that can best be described as decent. Two of the country’s brightest and most skilful prospects sat unused on the bench all night.
So Argentina, this is what it means to be Scottish; welcome to our world. If you feel the need to talk about your fears over these next few fraught weeks, feel free to get in touch.