Thousands of Scotland football supporters descended on London ahead of Friday’s European Championship match against England, despite calls from the UK capital’s mayor for those without tickets or a safe place to watch the game to stay away.
Anxiety about the fast-spreading Covid-19 Delta variant has clouded preparations for the latest instalment of football’s oldest international rivalry, but left undimmed the enthusiasm of many of the Scotland fans packing out trains and flights to London ahead of the game.
Football matches against the “Auld Enemy” of England have been among Scotland’s most keenly anticipated sporting events since the two nations drew the first match 0-0 in 1872.
“It is in the DNA of every Scotland fan that at one stage they should go to Wembley or London,” said Hamish Husband, west of Scotland spokesman for the Tartan Army, as the national team’s loyal fans are known.
London mayor Sadiq Khan along with UK and Scottish government ministers have repeatedly asked Scotland fans without tickets not to travel, warning that their usual London gathering spots will not be open and pubs have limited space for those without a booking.
“With Covid cases increasing, and with so much at stake as we fight this awful virus, I’m afraid . . . the best thing to do is not to come to London and instead enjoy the game at home,” Khan said this week.
Scotland fans have been allocated just under 3,000 tickets at London’s Wembley Stadium, where the 90,000-seat capacity has been cut to 22,500 owing to coronavirus distancing rules. But Scottish media have estimated that up to 20,000 were planning to make the trip to London.
Husband said an accurate count was impossible and some older Tartan Army regulars had decided to stay at home, but “many thousands” without tickets or pre-booked pub tables would be making the trip.
With travel to London permitted under current coronavirus restrictions, mere advice would not keep many younger fans from heading south, Husband said, adding: “They see it as their right”.
Friday’s match is particularly freighted for Scotland, which is taking part in an international football tournament for the first time since 1998 but saw its hopes of qualifying for the second stage of the competition dented by a 2-0 loss to the Czech Republic in its opening fixture on Monday.
Jason Leitch, the Scottish government’s national clinical director, this week highlighted concern that overly-enthusiastic football gatherings could help fuel coronavirus transmission.
“The Covid-safe result [would be] drizzle and a nil-nil draw,” Leitch said this week, though he admitted he could not help but hope for an odds-defying Scottish win. “It’s the hope that kills you.”
The two nations have played each other more than any other in football, with England racking up 48 wins to Scotland’s 41. At their last meeting, a World Cup qualifier four years ago, they drew 2-2.
However, with England far ahead in international rankings in recent decades, Friday’s match offers Scotland an opportunity to further a recent, modest footballing revival.
“I think we’re probably more respected now because we’ve qualified for a tournament and gone a lot of games unbeaten, but we’re still not as respected as much as we would all like,” said Andrew Robertson, Scotland’s captain and a star defender for Premier League side Liverpool.
“So a chance to play against [England] is a chance to show people that doubt Scottish football what we can do. We did that in 2017 . . . and we’ll need the same application and performance levels as that night,” said Robertson.
In prematch press conferences, England’s players struck a delicate balance --- both talking up the importance of a game against the Auld Enemy, yet clear that their position as one of the favourites to win the championship means looking beyond Friday’s match.
“We’re aware of the history of the game, the rivalry around it,” said Tyrone Mings, the England defender, “It’s going to be a very difficult game, of course. But at the same time it is the next step in our progression in the tournament, and that’s what we’re thinking about.”
Marcus Rashford, the England forward, added: “As players, you want to play in the biggest, most historic games . . . it’s going to be up there with one of the best games that we play, one of the games I remember for the rest of my career.”
In Scotland, support for the national team unites backers of Scottish independence and those who want continued union with the UK, with the result sure to cheer or dismay both sides of what is now the nation’s most pressing political faultline.
Husband, who has been following Scotland since 1966, warned younger fans to temper their hopes of victory.
“We are emerging from 20 years of poor quality football and we can’t score goals,” said the 63-year-old, joking that a cure for supporting Scotland was as badly needed as one for baldness.
“I was eight when I went to my first Scotland game and it’s been painful ever since,” Husband said. “The social work [department] should have taken me off my parents.”