Bit of an existential crisis at the start of this match. For me, that is. What on earth am I doing watching and writing about England vs. Scotland at Euro 2020?
I mean, there’s France, which has the best players in the world. There’s Belgium, tops in the FIFA world rankings. There’s Spain, which passes the ball elegantly more times in half a game than most teams pass the ball in a month. There’s Portugal, featuring God himself in the person of Cristiano Ronaldo.
And then this, England and Scotland. A promised drabness. An old rivalry, the oldest international rivalry in all of soccer, and not of much interest outside the island the two teams inhabit, but played up as a momentous occasion in the British press. Because it’s tribal; big-time ancestral angst, if not outright hate.
If we are to believe the Daily Express, 20,000 Scotland supporters “ran amok” in London. What they actually did was throng the streets of London in the rain and amuse themselves. Or as an Express reporter put it, “Excited supporters of the Scottish national team donned the official kit and draped themselves in saltires as they partied in London.” By the way, “saltires” is another term for the St. Andrew’s Cross. For this, the Express issued a thundering denunciation of Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. Man, they throw a wobbly over the slightest thing.
The upshot was a 0-0 game that wasn’t at all drab. It was kind of thrilling as Scotland, looking vastly different in energy and enterprise than the team that was woeful last week against the Czech Republic, took England to the brink. Fact is, in zeal and mental toughness, Scotland beat England with a 0-0 result.
England’s opening victory over an ageing and tired Croatia flattered to deceive. Now against a team with a fraction of England’s star power, England looked pedestrian. Even striker Harry Kane, expected to carry his country to the semi-final of this Euro at the very least, appeared to be auditioning for a new remake of The Invisible Man. If England progresses and meets France, Portugal or Germany, it will be swept aside with ease.
What did Scotland have going here? There were four changes from the side that was embarrassingly disorganized against the Czechs. The most important was the return to the team, after an injury, of Kieran Tierney, one of Scotland’s very, very few world-class players. He terrorized England for a while with incisive runs down the left channel. Around him are what, in the parlance of TV play-by-play, are “honest professionals.”
But they harried England from the get-go. They won the midfield tussle throughout. England’s ponderous approach was sideways-passing and retreating back to have another ponder about what to do. Forward passing with energy seemed to be something it had been sternly warned against. Raheem Sterling had a few good runs at Scotland’s goal but faded and had the air of a kid who was being bullied but didn’t want to tell his parents about it.
In the 64th minute, England manager Gareth Southgate put on Jack Grealish to replace an ineffectual Phil Foden. Grealish started operating on the left, Sterling shifted to the right. They could have shifted over and over, done the hokey-cokey even, but it wasn’t leading to any climax. Grealish is the great hope of the England fans, a puckish player, marvellous ball control skills and impish in his ability to dribble the ball past defenders. He’s cheeky. But he gets knocked down a lot for doing that, and knocking him down was Scotland’s unerring answer to his arrival.
Scotland might actually move on to the next round, with this draw and a potential upcoming victory over Croatia. England looks set to move on, on paper, but it will meet far tougher, slicker opposition than either a declining, past-it Croatia or a tribal-energized Scotland. England’s not in crisis, existential or otherwise, yet. Yet.
The whole tribal aspect made this match fun. Just before the match, the BBC reported, “A dispersal order for central London has been issued ahead of the Euro 2020 match between England and Scotland. The Met Police said it would ‘prevent the public being caused alarm, harassment and distress’ and stop criminality in the local area.”
Yes, England should be alarmed and distressed. The better team beat it, with no goals scored.