SO HERE’S how it plays out, a classically Scottish scenario. We beat Germany. We beat Poland. We win The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing and not only reinvent the wheel, but television, penicillin and tarmacadam, too. We gamble Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle and the Stone of Destiny on beating Gibraltar only to lose, but end up qualifying on goal difference thanks to our stunning ability to restrict the rock-dwelling storemen and customs officers to six.
Okay, first things first: how do we overcome the best team in the world? Drop Steven Fletcher, drop Scott Brown, drop the lot of them? Or was missing a whole night’s sleep coming back from Georgia punishment enough for that dismal defeat? In the end Gordon Strachan restricted himself to three changes for this toughest of all challenges.
This Germany are oh so very Germanic in having Bastian Schweinsteiger and Toni Kroos, such imposing physical specimens, as their midfield steel but they’re also terribly unGermanic in their employment of Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil and Mario Götze.
Who are these guys and where are they supposed to be playing? Müller is not a striker in the traditional sense. A lanky lolloper in ill-fitting socks, he didn’t get a touch in the opening minutes, indeed jogged from shy-line to shy-line as if playing a whole different kind of game. This was a demonstration of what it said on the calling card he created for himself at the tender age of 21: “I’m a raumdeuter,” he asserted, meaning “interpreter of space”.
Özil, not a midfielder in the traditional sense, mystifies most of England, where he plays his club football, and a good many Arsenal fans. They’re driven to distraction by his ghostliness. His first contribution was a stunning sprint, seemingly into oblivion. If those of us seeing the World Cup winners in the flesh for the first time knew the word for it, we’d call him an interpreter of the spaces where even the raumdeuters don’t stray.
Then there was Mario Götze. No one knows what to make of him – not the Bayern Munich supporters or even the grateful German nation, some of whom may still be drunk from that triumph in the Maracana 14 months ago. Of all those heroes, apparently, he’s the least loved. And yet he scored the goal which won them the cup! Oh, that Scotland could be so casual – so mean – with its favours. As if to emphasise his isolation he spent a lot of time hanging around in an offside position, far from any team-mate.
But then Müller did what Müller does. Set off at some crazy angle, took a dunt in the back from Scott Brown which failed to distract him, sclaffed with his left and scored. The ball took a deflection but, untouched, it would have probably counted anyway at the other post.
Older fans might well have likened the goal to one his namesake Gerd scored at Hampden in a 1969 World Cup qualifier. The thoroughly modern Müller wears the same No 13 shirt as Der Bomber; a different player but just as deadly.
That night 46 years ago Scotland were able to come up with a brilliant riposte – an absolute thundercrack by Bobby Murdoch. Could they do it again? Well, after a fashion. One scruffy goal was followed by another, Shaun Maloney’s shot being inexplicably fumbled by Manuel Neuer, the best goalkeeper in the world, and Mats Hummels knocked the ball over the line. Hampden, fearing the worst after the ease with which Germany had gone ahead, exploded. Rod Stewart, up dancing like the rest, was seen to try for a kiss from the missus and get one.
Then back came Müller – Superscruff – with an even uglier goal which nevertheless showed his supreme alertness when he twisted his body for a header to restore the champs’ lead. But, astonishingly, back came Scotland through James McArthur. Once again Neuer’s usual brilliance seemed to desert him, although James Morrison ducking underneath the shot at the last second may have fooled him. We all waited for the action replay to show how the Stewarts celebrated that one, but the footage didn’t come. Probably it was way too personal.
In German teams of the past – stiff-backed and summed up by the moniker “Torsten Frings” which screams mechanical certainty and utter rigidity – our butterfly-ish trio wouldn’t have got a look-in. They would have been viewed as frivolous, an indulgence – and more decadent than anything which came out of the nightclubs of 1930s Berlin.
Some of Germany’s movement was bewitching. Schweinsteiger, the chief bouncer at this bierkeller of whimsy and invention and captain of the side, was there to sort out any bovver – but Scotland weren’t just standing back and admiring. They were snarly and spirited both before Germany’s third scored by Ilkay Gündogan and especially after.
There was no need to fear the stellar names, the cunning drifters, the four gold stars on the shirt. McArthur justified his selection with a performance of great guts and Martin and Grant Hanley weren’t far behind him. Scott Brown’s dead-eyed stare at the coin-toss may be diminished as a force in football but he had a better game than in Tbilisi, as did everyone else.
It would be wrong to say the guys in dark blue made Özil look anonymous; he can do that all by himself. Götze faded out of things, too, but Müller definitely didn’t. Pride restored, but without any points. A very German victory, and a very Scottish defeat.