Christophe Berra was green with envy as he watched Ipswich Town team-mate Daryl Murphy star for the Republic of Ireland in the European Championships a couple of years ago.
The Scotland defender followed the exploits of Martin O’Neill’s side in France via Instagram and he’s desperate to give the Tartan Army the chance to party at next summer’s World Cup finals in Russia. So far the closest the Hearts skipper has come to such a stage was watching Scotland suffer a heartbreaking defeat by Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 tournament in France but now, he believes, Gordon Strachan’s squad are within touching distance of doing so for the first time in 20 years.
Berra conceded that even victories over Slovakia at Hampden tonight and Slovenia in Ljubljana on Sunday won’t guarantee that they do so but, he insisted, taking the play-off spot in Group F would, at least, give them a fighting chance of qualifying for the finals.
The 32-year-old said: “I think when you are a kid playing football, the pinnacle is to play for your country, and to do that at a major final would be massive.
“It’s something I’ve not experienced but, when I was at Ipswich, there were the likes of Daryl Murphy going away with Ireland. I followed his brother on Instagram going to all those games and it looked unbelievable. As a group of players, we all want to do that which would be great for us but for the nation as people say the Scottish fans are among the best in the world and they’d have a ball.
“Hopefully we can do that, but to take another step towards that we have to win tonight.” Having watched from the bench as Slovakia thumped Strachan’s side 3-0 in Trnava only a year ago, Berra is well aware of the threat they will pose, particularly from the wide ares with all three of their goals that night having come from crosses – Robert Mak scoring twice and the other netted by Adam Nemec.
“It was a strange game,” he recalled. “At one point, we looked quite comfortable. But that’s football at the highest level, the momentum of the game can change and you are punished.
“I wouldn’t know the stats, but a lot of goals come from crosses and the higher the level you are playing the better the delivery and the more clinical the striker.
“It’s something we’ll have gone over in our team meetings. In this day and age, set-pieces are massive, you have to be switched-on defensively.
“They have top quality players in the likes of Martin Skrtel and Marek Hamsik and others who aren’t household names over here so it will be tough. And they will be on a high. I think they were unlucky against England but it’s at Hampden, under the lights and it will be a great atmosphere.”
Having taken just four points from the opening four games of the campaign, many will concede that to still have their destiny in their own hands at this late stage is something of a bonus for Strachan and his players. Berra insisted, though, it is a lifeline they are determined to grasp.
Recalling how Scotland’s own Euro 2016 bid fizzled out in the closing stages, he said: “This is the first time when I’ve been involved that it will be in our hands if we take six points out of six.
“It wouldn’t be job done, but we’d be in the play-offs which is what we set out to do.”
Scotland might have been in an even better position had they managed to hold out for a win against England, Harry Kane snatching a draw in the dying seconds after two stunning free-kicks from Leigh Griffiths had appeared to have secured a memorable victory and, Berra admitted, it was only natural to look back and wonder “what if”.
He said: “If we’d held out against England and beaten Lithuania at home we’d be top of the group. But that’s hindsight, anyone can say that and I’m sure other teams in the other groups will be saying ‘if we’d done this or that’.
“We are where we are because of the results we’ve got. It’s one game at a time and, if we get a win against Slovakia that will make the game in Slovenia massive. But we have to focus on winning tonight first.”
Strachan has kept his cards close to his chest, not even revealing who will captain the team tonight but Berra said: “Whoever plays will relish it. It might be nervy but, if we perform like we did in our last two games, then we’ll give ourselves a good chance.”