WITH half of the 16 teams having been eliminated from the European Championship, we frustrated Scots now have the illustrious likes of Holland, Russia and Croatia for company in looking in from the outside as the competition enters the business end.
However, the very fact three sides of such strength have fallen at the first hurdle, allied to our dire form on foreign soil over the past decade or so, suggests it’s probably a good thing we didn’t qualify for the Euros. The general quality has been so impressive that Scotland – regardless of manager, team selection or formation – would surely have been well out their depth. Indeed, arguably the only team we’d have had any chance of emulating would be Ireland, who left Poland and Ukraine without a point.
It seems that, since we last reached a major finals in 1998, most European nations have improved significantly, while we have, at best, stagnated. This Scottish malaise has been brought sharply into focus over the past two weeks, where teams we would once consider ourselves to be better than now appear to be in a different league. Sweden, for example, are a country we would always fancy ourselves against in the 90s, but, for whatever reason, they now look streets ahead of us. Granted, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Co were eliminated, but that merely serves to highlight the strength of the competition. They were unfortunate to lose both their opening games, where they outplayed Ukraine and England for significant periods, before ending with a deserved win over the star-studded French. And make no mistake, the slick Swedes weren’t reliant on the type of backs-to-the-wall display the Scots required in their two wins over France in Euro 2008 qualifying.
There will be a few dreamers who suggest the fact Greece and Czech Republic have reached the last eight proves Scotland could have held their own, but it is hard to envisage Scotland, even with Sir Alex Ferguson in charge, being good enough to progress at the expense of teams like Russia and Poland, who lit up the first days of the tournament with some electrifying attacking. The argument goes that Scotland should have finished ahead of the Czechs in qualifying but, regardless of 4-6-0 in Prague and the late dive that got the visitors a vital point at Hampden, the Czechs, without being spectacular over the two games, were still technically superior to Scotland. The way Michal Bilek’s team took the early sting out of a partisan Polish crowd in Wroclaw last weekend was one of the less-heralded highlights of the group stages, and showed the type of possession-based football the Scots must aspire to.
Had they qualified, Scotland would probably have modelled themselves on the stuffy Greeks. But, while the progress to the last eight of the surprise 2004 winners was based predominantly on resolve and organisation, they also have some established goal-getters at this level in Giorgos Karagounis and Theofanis Gekas. In short, while Greece and Czech Republic may be among the more ordinary of the teams at the Euros, they are still, in terms of both technique and talent pool, operating on a different plane to Scotland.
Even England, despite surpassing expectations by winning a tricky-looking group, have found the going tough. Roy Hodgson’s superbly-organised team have had to dig deep to withstand the type of sustained pressure that saw them play second fiddle to France, Sweden and Ukraine for long periods of their group games. And for all that this may be a relatively-limited England squad, it is still one that no Scots would get near, with the exception of Darren Fletcher and possibly Charlie Adam, Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon. Yes, it would have been magnificent to be part of what has so far been an excellent tournament – and that’s before we’ve even mentioned the elite band of Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal. But, if we’re being brutally honest, unless we’re content to go along and be the type of cannon fodder that the Irish (who are still better than us) proved to be, it is probably a blessing if we continue to watch from afar until we get our house in order.
All the evidence suggests the elite and mid-section of European football has kicked on and left Scotland among the also-rans. Hopefully, the powers that be can rectify the situation in the long-term but, in the meantime, let’s just enjoy the last week and a bit of what has so far been an utterly enthralling competition dripping with class.