PICTURE the scene: Estonia have just lost 2-0 in a friendly at home to Ukraine, yet the natives couldn’t care a jot.
Many fans head for the bars of downtown Tallinn, while the players swiftly run down the tunnel to get changed and re-emerge to join the 500 or so who have remained in the A. Le Coq Arena. As their friendly ended last Tuesday, more important matters were kicking off in Slovenia, where Serbia needed a win to usurp the Baltic boys in the battle for a Euro 2012 play-off berth.
Estonia had never previously got close to a major tournament, but, sensing their big moment on the horizon, their fans donned Slovenian colours and some even travelled to Maribor to offer their support for the Balkan derby. Meanwhile, back in the stadium, fans and players watched on a big screen as the Slovenians did the business to send Estonia into the play-offs and spark the country’s biggest-ever footballing celebration.
“I remember when our neighbours Latvia qualified for Euro 2004, we thought ‘Will that ever be us?’” Andres Vaher, a leading Estonian football writer, told me. “Now we are in a play-off, every Estonian just feels like ‘I am the man.’”
In short, this little nation is savouring its unlikely play-off against Ireland next month with the same unbridled pride and joy that we Scots will experience if we ever get back to a major finals. In stark contrast, the negativity which met England’s securing of their Euro 2012 berth a week past Friday was quite flabbergasting. Yes, for a nation of their size and pedigree, it’s fair to say they stumbled over the line.
But bearing in mind that they didn’t even qualify for the tournament last time, surely they would have just been grateful to make it. Instead, all they wanted to do was slaughter their best player (Wayne Rooney) for his red card and lament a sloppy second-half display against an emerging Montenegro side. “England qualify in abject embarrassment” was how one journalist put it. Was it really?
Is it any wonder the England players, who are – through no fault of their own – hyped way above their station, wilt under pressure when they receive such stick despite achieving their objective? No team in Europe is put under such pressure by their own public.
Perhaps if they were cut some slack and allowed to enjoy playing for their country instead of being driven by fear of failure, they would have a better chance of rediscovering the Joie de vivre currently visiting the football people of Estonia.
Not a fan of . . .
. . . WAYNE ROONEY being hit with a three-game ban for Euro 2012. Yes, it was a needless act of petulance but to label his petty kick at a Montenegrin opponent “assault” seems a tad harsh. Would one game not have been punishment enough given the time between the offence and tournament?
Hats off to . . .
. . . ROSS McCORMACK. The Leeds striker continued his scintillating start to the season by adding his tenth goal on Friday. Having rediscovered the form he showed at Cardiff three years ago, he could well emerge as Scotland’s most prominent striker next year.
Frustration, yes, but stats show Levein could end agony
FRUSTRATION abides now another major tournament will pass by without Scotland next summer, but, if we look at the Euro 2012 campaign dispassionately, as perennial third-place finishers who were seeded third, was it really that much of a calamity that we finished, er, third?
Many argue the Czechs are ordinary, but, regardless of perception, if you’re grouped with two higher-ranked teams, the odds are going to be stacked against you. Incidentally, the start of this damaging slip down the seedings can be traced back to the Euro 2000 campaign when we failed to make top seeding count and were pipped by the Czechs. We’ve never been top seeds since and are now in a vicious circle which means we will be up against three teams adjudged superior to us in the World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign.
Despite this obstacle, we are now far better placed to make a decent fist of qualifying than we were at the outset of the Euro 2012 campaign. Evidence of the national team’s progress under Craig Levein can be found if we split his reign into two: pre-Spain home and post-Spain home. That wretched period, when Levein was still finding his way, prior to the 3-2 defeat against the world champions just over a year ago ultimately cost us qualification.
But it must be remembered that Kaunas, Liechtenstein home and 4-6-0 came in an era when the likes of David Weir, Stephen McManus, Lee McCulloch, and Barry Robson were first picks and Paul Hartley and Chris Iwelumo were still squad mainstays. The fact we were in a group of five, as opposed to six, meant there was less time for Levein to rectify the early-campaign damage once he had shooed out the old and made the new (Bannan, Goodwillie, Adam, Bardsley, Morrison, et al) more prominent.
Since Spain home our record reads: P 10, W 6, D 1, L 3, with the defeats against Brazil, Ireland and Spain. Demoralised Scots should consign this past campaign to history and accept that, in 2011, Levein has shown he can learn from mistakes and has barely put a foot wrong.
WHAT those in football have been tweeting..
“I apologise for my language. U have welcomed me but I heard one fan say I was passionless – that is so far from being me. – Nottingham Forest striker Ishmael Miller backtracks after using the F-word in response to fans’ criticism.
“At the Emirates with my boy. Getting the Gooner blood running through him already.” – Arsenal star Jack Wilshere reveals that baby Archie has attended his first game at less than three weeks old.