SCOTLAND manager Gordon Strachan insists the Tartan Army have nothing to fear in tonight’s 2018 World Cup draw in Russia.
But the draw threatened to be overshadowed with the lingering blight of racism in Russian football after Brazil striker Hulk mysteriously pulled out of being a draw assistant in St Petersburg.
Strachan is one of the few international managers who has opted to stay at home for the draw, with the SFA represented by new president Alan McRae.
Tonight’s occasion at Vladimir Putin’s presidential residence of Konstantin Palace should have been all about Russia showing they are ready to host the event in three years.
But, just days after Zenit St Petersburg and Brazil striker Hulk spoke out about “gross and ugly” racism in Russian football, Fifa revealed he would no longer help with the draw due to “club commitments”.
That came after Fifa demanded the Russian Football Union explain an alleged incident of racism inflicted on former Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong after he was sent off playing for FC Ufa against Spartak Moscow for a gesture to the crowd after saying he heard monkey chants. The midfielder was banned for two games but Spartak escaped punishment after the RFU found no evidence of racism.
It was the last thing an already-beleaguered Fifa needed given their own recent shocking downfall, but both Putin and under-fire retiring president Sepp Blatter will be in St Petersburg for this evening’s draw.
Scotland will be in Pot Three tonight having narrowly missed out on a higher seeding which would have been achieved with a win in Ireland in June. But Strachan insists his side won’t fear anyone.
A dream draw for the Scots would put them in a group with Wales, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Moldova and San Marino. However, a nightmare scenario could place them with Germany again, France, Turkey, Finland and Kazakhstan.
But Strachan is confident of progress, whoever his side face. He said: “We have already shown we can compete against Germany and, while we have a few big challenges ahead, the experience will stand our players in good stead. I still firmly believe we can qualify and that we will qualify for the Euro 2016 finals in France and, more importantly, the players believe that, too.
“I’ve never been one for hoping that we avoid this team or wishing that we draw that team. It’s disrespectful to the other
nations and it’s also pointless – you can’t control names that come out of a glass bowl.
“What I would say is that, given the draws in recent campaigns, we are due a favourable one. When you look at the campaign for the World Cup in 2014, Croatia were top seeds and we managed to beat them twice, which shows that we are more than capable of upsetting those seeded above us.
“The problem for us was that Belgium were third seeds behind Serbia but by that point had blossomed into one of the best teams in Europe. Then there was Wales, who were supposedly the weakest team in the group as sixth seeds but who have since gone on a remarkable journey helped in no small part by having an inspirational world-class player in Gareth Bale.
“From our own point of view, I don’t think anyone would argue with the progress we have made so far in another tough group – in fact the toughest qualifying group in the European qualifiers.”
But Strachan is adamant the “no easy game” mantra applies more than ever in international football.
He insisted: “It doesn’t really matter to me whether we were in Pot Two or Three. Having been Pot Four for long enough it shows progress, but qualification for major tournaments will happen on the pitch, not on a spreadsheet.
“There is no doubt qualifying for a World Cup finals is harder than ever, especially for nations in the Uefa confederation – there are so many good national teams across the continent vying for a limited number of places.
“We now have a group of players who want to better themselves, to achieve great things in their careers and, just as importantly, give our supporters the kind of experience they deserve. I’ve said it before and I will say it again: World Cups and European Championship finals have been poorer as festivals of football for not having the Scotland supporters there and I know they are looking forward to returning as much as we are.”