23 years of hurt: Scotland’s long road to Euro 2020

By Fraser Raleigh

As a ten-year-old Scotland fan sitting down 23 years ago today to watch Scotland play the first match of the France 1998 World Cup against the mighty Brazil, it seemed to me that major tournaments would be something to get used to. A narrow 2-1 defeat was nothing to be ashamed of, with Scotland even having equalised on the stroke of half time to send the world champions in at half-time ‘tae think again’. However briefly. The future looked so bright.

Less than a fortnight later, it was all over for another tournament, with a tame draw against Norway and a humiliating 3-0 collapse to Morocco confirming Scotland would fail to make the knockout rounds, just as they had in every previous tournament. Oh well. We’ll be back.

It took just nearly a quarter of a century.

England may be looking (once again) to put those now 55 years of hurt behind them by winning their first tournament since 1966, but for us Scots, the emotion of simply qualifying for Euro 2020 felt like a national healing for a team who had been so near yet so far for far too long.

There was the 2-1 loss to England of all teams in a Euro 2000 play-off that set the trend. Four years later– again in the play-offs – a shock first leg 1-0 win over the Netherlands had Scotland dreaming the impossible might just be possible. It wasn’t. The Dutch won the second leg 6-0.

If that wasn’t enough there were agonising last minute goals to snatch away the hope of qualifying right at the death for the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2016. Littered among those close encounters were turgid qualifying campaigns that were over almost as soon as they began.

And in the meantime, the rest of the home nations were putting Scotland to shame. Northern Ireland didn’t just make it to Euro 2016, they did what Scotland never had and qualified from their group to make the knock-out stage. There they met Wales, who won out and then went even further, reaching the semi-finals. England – of course – qualified for every tournament but one in all those years. Scotland was the poor sporting relation.

Even when Scotland managed to get close, then, it always seemed destined to be taken away, with match reports invariably describing “brave performances” that nevertheless still ended in “cruel defeat”.

So, when Scotland found themselves 1-0 up in the 90th minute of their Euro 2020 play-off final against Serbia last November, we knew what would come next as the Serbs set up for one final corner kick. Commentators may be fond of insisting that ‘you couldn’t write a script like this’, but Scotland has this one memorised. There may have been no fans in the ground thanks to COVID, but the Scotland fans watching through their fingers back home had – to borrow a Three Lions lyric – ‘seen it all before’. Sure enough; a corner thrown into the box, an opposition header, the net bulging agonisingly to force extra time on the demoralised Scots. History, surely, repeating itself.

But not this time!

Somehow Scotland dragged themselves to penalties and a famous 5-4 victory, with keeper David Marshall’s diving lunge to deny the Serbs sending Scotland fans into rapture as more than 20 years of emotion were released (see this video of players, fans – and Line of Duty’s Martin Compston – celebrating wildly, for proof).

Now, to top it off, when Scotland line up for their first match of the tournament against Czech Republic on Monday they will do so in front of a home crowd, with Glasgow one of the Euro 2020 host cities. A tantalising encounter with England at Wembley awaits four days later.

But while Scotland will dare to dream of making it into the knockout stages for the first time ever, Monday’s match will be a victory in itself, as it gives a generation of Scotland fans the chance to see their country play at major tournament for the first time in their lives. And reminds us older fans what it was like to feel – just as in 1998 – that the future might just be bright again after all.