Monday, January 24

England-Scotland will reflect how they have changed both, on and off the field | Euro 2020

IIt’s hard to convey now, in our fragmented multiplatform age, how inescapably, grotesquely huge the England v Scotland event in 1996 was. A quick glance at the newspapers on the morning of that game offers just a taste of the hope, fear, dizzying anticipation and casual jingoism that hosted the first match of the tournament between the oldest rivals in international soccer.

Among the wall-to-wall coverage, references to “jocks”, “kilts” and “sporrans” abound. The Mirror commissioned an article from comedian Bernard Manning in which he featured gems such as “I think Scots are great, even if they are a little tight.” The Sun printed a selection of “your good luck faxes to our boys” and urged England to “give the Scots a beating they will never forget.” Meanwhile, the ever solemn cover of The Guardian showed a horde of Scottish fans descending on London, highlighting the potential for violence.

It meant something different back then, which is not to say that it doesn’t mean anything now. But as Harry Kane and Andrew Robertson lead their teams Friday night at Wembley, a place where Uri Geller will not be circling in a helicopter, there is a sense that old feuds and old hysterics may no longer be. strictly necessary here. And above all, that this game between England and Scotland, two neighboring nations whose relationship has shaped much of the sport, should be remembered above all as a sporting contest rather than as a cultural event that defines a generation.

In part, of course, this is due to the restrictions pushed by Covid at Wembley, under which the stadium will be at a capacity of a quarter capacity. In part, you feel it is due to the quality gulf between the two nations (40 places in the world rankings) which will almost certainly mean that Steve Clarke’s Scotland sits behind the ball in an attempt to absorb the pressure. But partly, too, it’s a feeling that despite all their shared heritage and intertwined histories, England and Scotland have simply grown apart over the years – socially, culturally, and also in terms of football.

A Scotland fan celebrates on the pitch with Alan Rough and Gordon McQueen at Wembley in 1977
A Scotland fan celebrates on the pitch with Alan Rough and Gordon McQueen at Wembley in 1977, when the game against England played a much more central role. Photography: Colorsport / Shutterstock

The truth is, despite the various minor controversies that have emerged this week, driven largely by the media and nationalist politicians, any real large-scale football animosity between these two nations exists primarily in the form of nostalgia. In general, and perhaps to a greater extent than has been true for nearly a century, England no longer cares about Scotland. And increasingly, the reverse is also true.

When Robertson declared this week that Scotland was “not as respected” by England fans as he would like, he was talking more of an attention deficit than an esteem. The days when many English soccer fans instinctively kept an eye on club soccer north of the border, even if it was only through their Pools coupons, are long gone. So were the days when Scottish fans invested a significant part of their national pride in the annual meeting of the local championship with the English.

English football, for its part, has largely shed its traditional dependence on Scottish labor. Now there are more German and Spanish coaches than Scots in the first two divisions. Of the roughly two dozen Scottish players in the Premier League, only about seven or eight are truly indispensable to their clubs. Meanwhile, the examples of Jordan Holsgrove at Celta Vigo, Aaron Hickey at Bologna and Liam Morrison and Barry Hepburn at Bayern Munich demonstrate that there are alternative career paths for young Scottish players to simply migrate across the border. .

Two nations united, each looking the other way. And, in a sense, this is a direct effect of the political evolution of the two nations since the Scottish National Party first won power over Labor at Holyrood in 2007. Whereas football once served as a practical sublimation of Anglo-Scottish relations, a largely harmless canvas strategy on which to express historical tribal differences, now these battles are being fought for real.

John Stones, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Kieran Trippier in training.
John Stones, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Kieran Trippier in training. The England class of 2021 faces Scotland in a very different climate than 1996. Photograph: Carl Recine / Reuters

For the past two years, the successive nationalist governments of England and Scotland have engaged in a kind of gruesome and mutually antagonistic pact, fully aware that each serves the other’s purposes perfectly. For the SNP, resistance to the “Tory Westminster rule” remains the defining note of its offer. The Conservatives, for their part, have been perfectly content to arm anti-Scottish sentiment in England for electoral gains, especially in the 2015 general election. More animus and more bombast are inevitably further down the line. A second referendum, a constitutional crisis, a secession: who really knows? But in the face of all this, you might begin to appreciate how the midfield battle between Kalvin Phillips and John McGinn might start to pale a bit in comparison.

And he certainly suspects that the best chance of winning for England on Friday night lies in turning the volume down rather than turning it up, removing layers of meaning rather than attacking them, treating this as business rather than personal. This is a tournament game at Wembley with qualification for the round of 16 of the European Championship at stake. Any other motivation should be completely unnecessary.

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For Scotland, this is last chance territory. Following their credible but dire 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic on Monday, a draw would keep them afloat before a decisive final match against Croatia (to which they have never lost). So the emphasis will be on tightening the gaps between their three defenders (which will likely become five without the ball), inviting England to over-commit, testing all four defenders with crosses, keeping 11 men on the field at all costs. .

Naturally, history and muscle memory brought attention to this accessory as soon as the giveaway took place. It will certainly be an occasion to savor, a mass broadcast event on both sides of the border (naturally with separate commentary teams), perhaps even a great game. But he suspects that it will only be truly memorable if Scotland wins.

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