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Ask a youngster why the Scotland-Czech Republic Euro 2020 game mattered and you’d probably get an endearingly earnest answer like the one seven-year-old Theo gave me: “It’s our country and I’ve never seen us in the Euros before because the last time was 23 years ago.
“It’s even more exciting because we are getting to watch it in school. If Scotland win I will jump about, cheer, sing ‘I Can Boogie’ and be so happy.”
Ask a 37-year-old man like Simon and you’ll get one like this: “I’m f***ing pumped.”
But there’s more to it than that, of course.
“To be honest,” he added, “I’m a bit emotional just to be back with Scotland fans in whatever number after the past year.
“On top of that it feels like we are back after a long exile, and having followed Scotland to Italy ‘90, Euro ‘96, France ‘98 I don’t want us to just be here but I want us to go through to the next round.”
In the depths of the fragrant grey trench that is Edinburgh’s Cowgate, Scotland fans — many of whom had been given the afternoon off work — were handed a sporting raison d’etre unlike anything many of them have known.
There was undeniably something in the air. Fans spoke of a “monumental” day, of the aura of “togetherness” after a time when we’ve all been kept apart. That the Scotland squad have a chance to prove themselves to the football world, one told me, is uniting people across the generations.
“I was a schoolkid when we were last in a major tournament,” said Glaswegian Graeme, “and I’m as excited now as I was then. And it’s even better to have it happening in Glasgow.
“I dropped my kids off at school this morning and the kids were all in Scotland strips, wrapped in flags and singing away to ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie!’ Kids are dressed head to toe in blue and saltires. My dad told me he was my age when they last qualified.”
Edinburgh wasn’t quite co-operating with the demands of screening a sporting event under outdoor social distancing conditions. Intead, it rapidly completed the bingo card of Scottish summer weather: blindingly sunny, soberingly grey, awkwardly humid, and bitterly windy all, incomprehensibly, at the same time.
The crowd wasn’t bothered, and the aura of normality was almost uncanny.
Averaging out at 25-35 and almost monolithically male, they looked — and sounded — like any football crowd you’ve joined. Techno-beat bagpipe bar music, spilled pints, men in kilts who haven’t yet worked out how to sit comfortably and with dignity. It could have been 1998, really – except that in 2021, standing up and embracing strangers are taboo.
With Scotland’s halting emergence from Covid-19 underway, could this sporting event spell a return to normal life?
“Last time Scotland got to a major tournament I was nine years old,” said one meek-mannered man, “and I didn’t really appreciate it. Back then, it was just what you expected.
“Since then it’s been so many years of failure ... and now it just feels like everyone’s together again.”
On Scotland’s prospects in the tournament, one well-turned-out couple insisted the team would win the whole tournament, but the best chance anyone else gave them was the quarter-finals, and that was an 11-year old boy.
Many pinned their hopes on the group of 16, with some crossing their fingers just to see Scotland win at least one game. And whether or not they can beat England on Friday remains a matter of polite debate.
But as 37-year-old Liam explained before kick-off, that’s not the point.
“Following the Scottish national team goes beyond the boundaries of football and sport,” he mused. “It’s about being an underdog standing against the favourites, not always winning but being the loudest either way and having a pint with the opposition fans whatever the score.
“You suffer the lows because the highs are so good, and it’s been 23 years of lows. Today is the pay-off!”
So it went at The Three Sisters on the Cowgate. All Covid-19 strictures aside, a bolt of electricity shot through the yard whenever Scotland managed to approach the Czech goal, but for all their renditions of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, Do-Re-Mi and England’s F***ing S**t, the collective optimism headed into the game was tempered and sanguine, not chauvinistic.
After the 2-0 stasis set in, an attempted Scottish goal in the 84th minute launched everyone back into the air, but the ball bounced off a Czech player and flew off into the ether. Cue the dutiful order from the bar staff to sit back down, then a rousing round of “Ally’s Tartan Army”, albeit with Ally McLeod removed. Then it’s back to “You Take the High Road” – a song about getting back to Scotland rather than away from it into the upper echelons of continent-wide soccer.
While the 23 years since 1998 may be today’s main frame of reference, the 1978 campaign that spawned one of football’s most indelible novelty songs still looms large.
Alexander, who followed the Tartan Army on their journey to the South Atlantic, remembers the atmosphere that summer.
“Everybody was happy. There wasn’t any real disappointment, because everybody was having a ball. The streets were full of kilts. Full of them. Pipers at the airports. I’m sure there were some folk who’d blown so much money for the trip that they just stayed there rather than going home to face the music.
“Forget France in 98. Argentina was the place. And the reason we enjoyed it was there wasn’t too much expectation. But we were there with the Germans and the Italians, and Argentina. And no England. I think most people just stayed on for the final. That was some party.”
Cowgate is hardly the Avenida 9 de Julio, but the same logic was in the air: calibrate your expectations, accept the (almost) inevitable, and sing your heart out while it lasts.
The game done, three of the loudest lads in the garden strode off into the afternoon, sporran chains clanking. They weren’t even slightly drunk.
“If we lost 2-0 to a country like the Czech Republic,” one said, “we deserve to lose 4-0 to England.” Not a hint of bitterness, just acceptance.
And with the game over and done, on they went to the next pub. “Wait here,” said one, masking up to dive into one on the Grassmarket. “Let me do the talking.”