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Scotland team’s unheroic failure ends fans’ noisy, sozzled party

<span>Kevin Csoboth’s winnng goal leaves Scotland in despair.</span><span>Photograph: Catherine Ivill/AMA/Getty</span>
Kevin Csoboth’s winnng goal leaves Scotland in despair.Photograph: Catherine Ivill/AMA/Getty

Some day, perhaps, the run will end. Some day Scotland will make it out of the group at a major tournament. But not yet, not this year. They earned a single point, failed to have a shot on target in three of the six halves of football they played in Germany, and scored just twice, one of them a freakish own goal that was gifted to them. Brewers and bar-holders will miss their fans, but few will miss their football.

Scottish sorrow comes in catalogues. Some of their previous 11 group-stage exits have been the result of just not being that good. Some have been the result of underperformance on the biggest stage. And some, the sweetest, have carried the air of gallant failure. The most celebrated – 1978, Archie Gemmill, Ally MacLeod, the Dutch and all that – was a large helping of the third of those on a bed of the second.

Related: Scotland heartbreak as Hungary’s 100th-minute winner knocks them out of Euro 2024

How to judge this one? It certainly wasn’t 1974, going out on goal difference after drawing with Brazil and Yugoslavia because they didn’t quite score enough goals against Zaire. It wasn’t even 1996, beating Switzerland in their final game and going out only because England conceded a late goal against the Netherlands.

But it was probably better than the last Euros, when the draw against England rather masked the poor performances in defeats to the Czech Republic and Croatia. And it was certainly better than the 1954 World Cup, their first tournament, when, permitted a squad of 22, they turned up with 13, apparently convinced, in the words of Tam Reid, the head of their selection committee, that “the continentals don’t like to have to fight back”. After a 1-0 defeat by Austria, the manager, Andy Beattie, quit before a 7-0 defeat by Uruguay.

It wasn’t great. Qualifying is to an extent its own reward and an estimated 200,000 have thoroughly enjoyed their week and a bit in Germany. Depending on your tolerance for enormous crowds of the terminally sozzled, their fans have either been a joy or, at the very worst, a tolerable inconvenience, good-humoured and extremely noisy, always there to be videoed helping an old woman across a road. Nobody belts out the anthem with the gusto they give to Flower of Scotland. And nobody else boos Sweet Caroline – which is all to their credit.

Scots have been to this tournament as the Peruvians were to Russia in 2018: it didn’t matter where you went, how obscure the town, how far from anywhere they were playing, you’d find them. They’ll be telling tales of the great migration for decades, the legends of Munich and Cologne and Stuttgart, the lost nights, the lost days, the prodigious drinking, the singing, the viral videos.

But as with Peru in 2018, there is the sense of taking advantage of an opportunity that comes only occasionally, making the most of it because you don’t know when the chance will come again – certainly not in an easily manageable foreign country only a cheap flight away.

Their fans are celebrated partly because they are impressive – there was something stirring, for instance, about the sight of the steps in front of Cologne cathedral, the square and the streets all around, draped in navy blue and tartan – but also because they are a novelty, and because it’s a lot easier to praise them than the team.

This was a game they had to win to have a chance of going through as one of the four best third-placed teams and yet they didn’t have a shot until the 53rd minute, when Ché Adams flashed a speculative shot from well outside the box well over. It was a miserable grind of a game all round, an argument to take the Euros back down to eight teams, never mind 16. Hungary’s much-vaunted relationist philosophy seemed to consist largely of clattering John McGinn.

Whatever glimmers of promise there may have been in the second half against Switzerland or in the game against Germany they were snuffed out here.

Hungary were just beginning to step up the pressure when Barnabas Varga went down in the box, his collapse making clear something was badly wrong. As blankets were held up around him and medics rapidly summoned by distressed Hungarian players, the mind inevitably went back to Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest at the last Euros. Football has a terrible way sometimes of reminding you it’s just a game. Varga was taken to hospital where he was soon reported to be conscious and stable. He is understood to have been unconscious before he hit the ground and to have broken a cheekbone in several places, requiring surgery.

Scotland will think of the penalty they might have had soon after, or the half-chance that fell to Grant Hanley, but it was Hungary who had hit the post through Kevin Csoboth even before the Ujpest forward swept in a late winner that may keep Hungary in the competition. It would be hard to portray this as a hard luck story.

Maybe it would have been different if the tournament had come a year earlier, but this Scotland was a long way from the side that beat Spain so zestfully at the beginning of qualifying. There will be talk of heartbreak, but in the great annals of Scottish disappointments this barely registers. Not all failures are heroic.