Scotland v Ukraine: The eyes of the world are on Scotland and they all want us to lose - Aidan Smith

It’s a word I tend to avoid because sportsmen can’t resist it. Every success, every event and very possibly every bowl of cereal on the morning of competition is “surreal”.

Scotland captain Barry Ferguson rides a challenge the last time we played Ukraine in 2007. A far greater one faces un on Wednesday
Scotland captain Barry Ferguson rides a challenge the last time we played Ukraine in 2007. A far greater one faces un on Wednesday

But maybe it perfectly sums up what’s ahead of Scotland, the football team, the Tartan Army and the whole nation at Hampden on Wednesday night. This World Cup playoff against Ukraine will be unusual, unearthly, bizarre, weird, even freakish. For want of a better word: surreal.

How will we feel knowing that never before has a game involving us stirred this amount of global interest? And how will we feel knowing that everyone – absolutely everyone – who isn’t one of Jock Tamson’s bairns wants us to lose?

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Scotland are accustomed to the role of the underdog. It’s a hair-shirt we wear with pride and a swagger, synchronised with a swinging kilt and a tall feather planted in a Glengarry. But this will be peak underdog, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. Ultra-underdog. Underdog to the max. The underdog’s apotheosis.

Wednesday will take to two the number of times Ukraine – brave, battered, heroic Ukraine – have emerged from the bunkers since the war began. The first was the Eurovision Song Contest which, in the least surprising outcome in the history of everything, their entry won.

Once again at Hampden the yellow and blue flag will flutter and the world, the rest of it, will be hoping for the same result with Scotland finishing runners-up just like Sam Ryder, the UK’s contender in Turin. (And of course hoping that Wales do likewise next Sunday so that Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and his countrymen can march on to Qatar).

But Eurovision is Eurovision and football is football; they are not the same. Eurovision is singing “Yum yum yum yum yum yum, yum-yum-yum, give that wolf a banana” and football is John McGinn.

Ryder, whose song wasn’t the one about lupines and curved, fleshy fruit and in a shock development did not score nul points, the UK’s usual outcome and our punishment for Brexit, proved himself a charming diplomat who was warm in his praise of the other contestants – but he was pretty much resigned to his fate. Eurovision is invariably prey to political voting and he knew, as did we all, that Kalush Orchestra were going to triumph for Ukraine.

Scotland’s talisman, though, should be called John McWin. This is how all footballers are programmed. They’re uncannily adept at blocking out external pressures. The game is the thing; the only thing. We might wish they were more aware of the world going on about them, to be rounded men and not just round ball ones, but that is not football’s chief concern. Our top scorer and the rest of the boys in dark blue desperately want to be at the greatest show on earth. Just like Ukraine.

The footballers of this war-ravaged land making it all the way to the World Cup would be a fantastic story. We have failed to qualify since 1998 through bad luck and ineptitude. The Ukraine team succeeding despite the horrors visited on Mariupol and Kharkiv would, you imagine, shine a little light of hope into every bunker. Who would want to deny that?

Here’s how President Zelensky greeted the result from Eurovision with Kalush Orchestra’s ode to their singer’s mum squeezing out Sam Ryder’s “Space Oddity” update: “This is not a war but nevertheless, for us today, any victory is important. So let’s cheer for ours. Glory be to Ukraine!” Football is not a war either but it trumps Eurovision. We might wonder, though, who Boris Johnson will be supporting on Wednesday. Our PM, let’s be honest, has had a good war. When you’re busy playing international statesman, Partygate headlines like “Vomit, fighting, karaoke … ” can reduce to a distant rattle. Through his shuttle diplomacy he’s been encouraging the Nordic countries to join Nato, in Sweden’s case while rowing across a lake with their premier.

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Now I don’t think this was a tribute to Jimmy Johnstone’s famous boating expedition all those years ago when we took World Cup qualification as a given. I reckon a Scottish win would cause Boris some embarrassment the next time he meets his new best friend Zelensky so he will probably have those well-fed cheeks painted yellow and blue for this game like no other.

At Eurovision, Britain could afford to be happy with second place after all those dismal flops. And content itself that France and Germany, who’ve been less helpful to Ukraine in their hour of need, are right down at the bottom of the scorechart. But again I stress: Andy Robertson and Callum McGregor do not earn their living singing about Meghan Markle’s hair – Serbia’s entry – and for them second is nowhere.

Turin attracted the song spectacular’s biggest TV audience for many years and Hampden for a playoff will surely do the same. Scotland – never usually short of romantic appeal beyond these shores – will find themselves cast as the villains intent on ruining the desired outcome.

Eurovision votes can be easily bought. Referees and VAR officials are made of sterner stuff but Wednesday for them will present a challenge never before experienced, involving just about the largest quantity of emotional baggage that’s ever been piled up at the side of a football pitch.

If Scotland lose this game it will merit detailed description in our Bumper Book of World Cup Woe and due to the extraordinary circumstances there will be some sympathy afforded us which may allow for its inclusion in the chapter headed Glorious Failures.

But if we win? Surreal won’t cover it.



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