The media accreditation list for a Scotland international rarely features news correspondents from CNN, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post, Bild, L’Equipe and the New York Times.
The convergence of world news outlets on Glasgow for a World Cup play-off semi-final against Ukraine tonight reflects the significance of an event which now transcends a game of football.
The tragedy of events in Ukraine can’t be placed at the door of Scotland’s national football team. The order to roll tanks over the Russian border came from the Kremlin rather than Hampden. The destruction of Mariupol and Kharkiv is a consequence of despotic behaviour from Vladimir Putin rather than any malevolent deeds by Steve Clarke and his players.
Scotland’s World Cup clash against Ukraine simply transcends football with the world’s media arriving in Glasgow hoping to see the war-ravaged nation embark on a fairytale story
Scotland have become unwitting bad guys and face a difficult challenge at Hampden Park
On Wednesday night, however, Clarke and his side find themselves cast in an unenviable position. In the face of Russian brutality, Ukraine has earned the sympathy of the world. In the quest to reach Sunday’s play-off final against Wales, supporters across the planet will unite in support of a nation locked in a grim struggle for survival.
The rolling news networks will set up at Scotland’s National Stadium hoping for a ‘good news’ story and what’s good news for Ukraine is not good news for Scotland’s hopes of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time in 24 years.
Addressing the idea that Scotland have somehow emerged as unwitting ‘bad guys’ in a situation not of their making, manager Clarke shrugs.
‘I have to be honest, I don’t always read a lot of media but I haven’t really felt that as a narrative, that we are at fault somehow,’ he said. ‘I’ve never felt that. Obviously we are not at fault in any way whatsoever.
There have been suggestions that Scotland could hold reservations over playing in the game
‘For us it is a game of football and for the Ukrainian boys it will be the same. It’s a game of football and both teams want to go to the World Cup finals.’
Originally scheduled for March 24, few expected tonight’s delayed play-off to happen at all. Reacting to a request by the Ukraine FA to postpone the fixture until June, FIFA and UEFA had little option. The Scottish FA, meanwhile, made the wise decision to remain quiet.
In the face of calls from Graeme Souness and various commentators for Scotland to stand aside and give Ukraine a bye, that was never a realistic option for the SFA. A 3-0 defeat to Morocco in St Etienne in 1998 was the national team’s last inglorious experience of a World Cup finals. And so long as Ukraine felt ready and able to settle the matter on the football pitch, Scotland had to watch and wait.
‘It’s definitely not back to normal,’ said Clarke of the current war zone in eastern Ukraine. ‘But we always said we would be guided by the Ukrainians and how they felt about the situation and what they wanted from the situation.
Ukraine are hoping to give their country a lift by reaching their first World Cup in 24 years
There are many unknowns ahead of the game, with Ukraine severely lacking in match fitness
‘What they want is that their football team can come out of the country, prepare properly as they have for the last four weeks, and be ready for a football match.’
Walking the tightrope between sympathy and virtue signalling has been a tricky business at times. Scotland supporters will converge on Hampden tonight to sing the Ukrainian national anthem for the benefit of news networks while the team focus on keeping their eyes on the prize.
‘Ukraine want to give their country a lift, which is absolutely 100-per-cent understandable,’ added Clarke. ‘But we want to go to the World Cup as well. We want to give our country a lift.
‘It’s very difficult to do but you have to separate the situation that the Ukrainians find themselves in and the context of a football match. It’s a football match and that’s what we focus on.’
Scotland boss Steve Clarke says his side have more than a right to battle for a World Cup spot
When it comes to Ukraine it’s hard to know what to expect. At the beginning of May, coach Oleksandr Petrakov assembled 23 players at the Slovenian Football Association training centre at Brdo pri Kranju, 12 miles north of the capital Ljubljana.
The national team beat Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany before moving on to Italy to face Empoli on May 17 and Croatia for a 1-1 draw with Rijeka the following night.
By the time they played Empoli and Rijeka, some of the big hitters such as Roman Yaremchuk and Danylo Sikan had joined the squad. By Thursday, Vitaliy Mykolenko of Everton, Eduard Sobol of Club Brugge, Andriy Yarmolenko of West Ham United and English title winner Oleksandr Zinchenko of Manchester City were available for an internal bounce game at the training camp.
‘I would imagine their preparation will have been as close to spot on as they can get it,’ said Clarke. ‘Obviously the boys based in Ukraine haven’t played competitive football since they had their winter shutdown. They had their international games in November — like ourselves, that was the last time we played competitive international football.
Ukraine played their first game since the conflict with Russia began this month with a friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach, which they won 2-1
Ukraine star Oleksandr Zinchenko broke down in tears at their pre-match press conference, summing up the heightened emotions around this game
‘I know we had two friendlies in March, they have had a few friendlies leading up to it to get themselves in shape. They probably looked at their four-week training camp as pre-season for their Ukraine-based players when they can get them up to speed.
Pretty much most people are ready for a game of football after four weeks and they’ve now got the European-based players that have joined them. They will be ready to go, don’t worry.’
In contrast with March, when the game should have been played, Scotland seem less well prepared.
Arsenal’s Kieran Tierney is missing with a knee injury. Everton full-back Nathan Patterson won’t make tonight’s game. Ryan Jack of Rangers is another call-off.
Without Tierney the 3-5-2 formation which contributed towards an eight-game unbeaten run feels less effective. Clarke will choose between Scott McKenna — on a high after Nottingham Forest ended their 23-year wait for Premier League football — or Leeds captain Liam Cooper.
Motherwell’s Stephen O’Donnell will also vie with Anthony Ralston of Celtic and Aaron Hickey of Bologna for the right wing-back berth. Despite a difficult season on loan at Norwich, meanwhile, Billy Gilmour seems certain to anchor midfield alongside Celtic captain Callum McGregor.
Clarke’s men hope to respectfully disrupt the narrative around Ukraine’s Hollywood story
‘When the lads come away they’re always in a good place,’ added the manager. ‘Billy is fine. A disappointing season for Norwich is all part of growing up for Billy.
‘He comes in with us and enjoys being in the camp and enjoys the way we utilise him on the pitch. And hopefully he plays well.’
The unknowns and the imponderables make Scotland v Ukraine a difficult game to call. Yet for Clarke and his players there is a respectful desire to deprive the news networks of the Hollywood ending they crave.
Asked if any of his players might also harbour the kind of reservations over playing against Ukraine expressed by former Scotland captain Souness, meanwhile, Clarke is sharp and to the point.
‘That one is a really easy question to give a one word answer. No.’