It seems typical of Scotland’s recent story that, 40 years after Hampden provided such a rousing send-off for Ally MacLeod’s side prior to departure for Argentina, they are cast as interlopers at parties designed to boost Peru and Mexico’s morale prior to a World Cup adventure.
One tip for the hosts: just no one mention winning it.
Scotland tackle the first in this tough pair of assignments in the early hours of tomorrow morning. It’s a long way to come to fulfil the role of patsies. Peru is understandably all a-quiver. La Bicolor are on the brink of another World Cup adventure, only their second since helping ram MacLeod’s bus off the road in 1978 with a shock 3-1 win in Cordoba.
As if underlining the impact this had on the Scottish psyche, the national side haven’t set foot on South American soil since being eliminated from that tournament.
This self-imposed exile is set to end very soon. The roles are now reversed; Scotland are the ones expected to be cannon fodder. A jubilant nation is preparing to watch their heroes perform in a far-away land– Russia in this instance.
The Peruvian FA received more than 700,000 ticket applications for the clash with Scotland, their last at home before facing Switzerland and Sweden in Europe en route to their base in Khimki, 30 kilometres north-west of Moscow.
The Estadio Nacional del Peru could have been filled to several times its 45,000 capacity. It was sold out for a training session on Sunday.
Alex McLeish would be foolish not to be wary. In fact, he is permitted to be terrified. He is preparing to send one of Scotland’s least experienced international sides into this cauldron. Lewis Stevenson, the 30-year-old Hibs player, will win his first cap at left-back. After skipper Charlie Mulgrew, who has 31 international appearances, Matt Phillips is the most capped player in the group with 11 appearances.
Stevenson is among nine players to whom McLeish, pictured, is expected to hand international debuts in the coming days, with Scotland facing a perhaps tougher test against Mexico in the Azteca Stadium this weekend. But first Peru: McLeish, mindful of MacLeod’s hubris, has done his homework.
“We know a lot about this team,” he stressed. “I think Roughie (Alan Rough, Scotland’s goalkeeper when they lost 3-1 to Peru in 1978) said in a recent article we did not know anything about Peru in ’78, because they were not world renowned.
“But obviously with the research everyone can do now with the internet and the television coverage, then, if you are an anorak, you can know every player all over the world.
“Our boys have got to come and realise these are some of the best moments in their life and their young football days and to make the best of it. The Peruvian coach (Ricardo Gareca) has said we play with intensity – let’s hope we don’t let him down on that one.”
But McLeish can’t afford to fall into a trap. He will know an inexperienced side can’t be expected to play with intensity for 90 minutes. Scotland will respect the opposition while wishing to silence the giddy home supporters.
“Maybe their fans might be expecting their team to put on a show,” said McLeish. “We will respect the opposition but we want to spoil their World Cup party. We are going to have to be brave at some stages of the game.
“We are not going to go and play an open game in Barcelona style. That would be absolute sheer folly. We are going to have to be organised and get close to their danger men. When we have the ball, we have to keep it.”
The Peru fans won’t appreciate that if it happens. McLeish can sense their optimism. After just a few hours in Lima, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the exuberance.
The newspapers convey this excitement, as they would have in Scotland in similar circumstances and have done plenty times in the past. “La Bicolor bathe in popularity” was one headline following Peru’s public and boisterous open training session, with one female fan dressed in a bride’s dress asking for Gareca’s hand in marriage.
It’s giving Scotland a flavour of what they can expect should they reach a major finals again.
This is Scotland’s reason for being here: to acquire the game knowledge, and the poise, required to compete once again in global tournaments. Football has moved on since 1978. It’s moved on since 1998, when Scotland last felt a part of things.
Scotland have no competitive game until September. Before then their friendly schedule reads: Peru, Mexico, Belgium and Portugal. It’s a mini World Cup – indeed, it’s a game more than Scotland would expect to play at such an event.
“Bring it on,” said McLeish, when asked if even now, after all he has experienced, the prospect of such clashes still thrills him.
“When it was announced we were coming here, I know there was a lot of criticism,” he added. “But let’s just relish it. Let’s get something out of it.
“If we can get the results, then that’s fantastic. But we are against two teams who are above us in the rankings. They have been to World Cups, Mexico in recent times, Peru not so much recently.
“But we know the skill levels and speed of South American teams and we are looking forward to the challenge. The trip has been good, so has the spirit.
“If it’s down to the spirit I’ve seen, we’ll be alright.”
McLeish was sitting at a table when he uttered this, so it was impossible to see whether he, like nearly everyone else, had his fingers crossed in the hope things don’t turn ugly.