No one understands heart break or disappointment like a long serving Scotland fan. After yet again being unable to reach the World Cup, finishing third in their group behind arch rivals England and Slovakia, it seemed like the wait for international tournament participation was about to reach its 20th anniversary for Scotland.
For the world: a summer of football, for Scotland: a painful reminder of their footballing underachievement and the fact that the last time they qualified for a major international tournament was before French superstar Kylian Mbappe was even born. Watching your arch rivals soar through to a world cup semi final can cloud over even the sunniest of days, but I suppose it makes watching them miss out on their first world cup final in 52 years all the sweeter.
Nothing divides the UK quite like Scotland and England vying for the same footballing title, well apart from Brexit – but let’s not open that can of worms. The next tournaments promising that split are the UEFA Nations League and the European Championships. A tournament shrouded in mystery from the start, what is the Nations League’s purpose? Apart from another opportunity to play international football and give fans the opportunity to support on a grand scale in the period between the World Cup and the Euros in 2020. It seems the Nations League’s defining attribute is that it gives teams a ‘back door’ into the Euros, allowing those who don’t usually qualify to have an extra chance.
There are four leagues; A, B, C and D. Within the leagues the four group winners are promoted and play in the Finals in June of 2019. Now, in terms of qualifying for the Euros, there will be ten groups, the top two teams in each qualifying automatically. The other four places are reserved for the winners of the European Qualifiers play-off winners which is comprised of the 16 group winners of the Nations League.
If a team has already qualified through the European Qualifiers, their spot goes to the next best ranked team in their league. If a league doesn’t have four teams to compete, the leftover slots go to teams from another league based on the overall UEFA Nations League Ranking. This will be vital for teams like Scotland whose hopes of immediate qualification are typically shaky at best.
A lacklustre start to the tournament saw a group that Scotland should have walked over come down to the last game; like only the Scots know how. As the final group game approached, Scotland and Israel were tied on points and, knowing only a win would suffice, a nail biting game saw them eventually coming out on top.
The final game, 90 minutes standing between us and overcoming the first hurdle to qualifying for the Euros since 1992. But, after going 1-0 down within the first 10 minutes, it was looking like the hope of qualification for another international tournament was going to pass us by. However, a stunning performance from man of the match James Forrest saw Scotland equalising and taking the lead all before the end of the first half. Two goals ahead and victory was within Scotland’s grasp.
Not for long though. In true Scottish fashion, the lead slipped to just one goal, after a 75th minute strike from Israel’s Zahavi found the bottom corner making it 3-2 with just 15 minutes, plus stoppage time, to play. 88 minutes played and an incredible save from McGregor denied a last minute equaliser from Israel saving Scotland from having to grab a later goal of their own.
Four minutes of added time and the nation were on the edge of their seats, could Scotland hold onto this lead for 240 seconds? A free-kick and last chance for Israel played offside and the final whistle blew. Scotland fans everywhere celebrate, a top spot that should’ve been easy for Scotland to achieve didn’t make seeing the words ‘group winner Scotland’ feel any less triumphant. But the hard work doesn’t stop now.
So what’s next for Scotland? Their next task is the qualifiers for the 2020 European Championship, which begin in March 2019, before they play any more nations league games. If Scotland don’t manage to qualify for the Euros initially, which to be frank is more than likely, the Nations League acts as a ‘safety net’ essentially and gives them another opportunity for qualification.
Now get your notepad out because this is where it gets confusing. If they don’t manage to secure a place from the first round of qualifiers, Scotland will play Finland in the next round of the Nations League, but only if Finland also miss out on qualification. Scotland will be in the pot three seeds for the next round of the Nations League and could face other teams such as Slovakia, Norway, Turkey and both Northern and the Republic of Ireland, depending on their respective qualification stances. In the event that Scotland manage to qualify through the Euro qualifiers then their place will be given away to one of the other teams that don’t qualify, and the Nations League will become irrelevant to them.
The Scottish European Championship campaign has been branded Nothing Matters More. Being able to see Scotland play in an international tournament, for the first time since the 1998 World Cup in France, for every young Scotland fan, nothing does matter more.