Scotland 1 Italy 2: Defiant Scotland embrace brighter future
Hampden Park remained full for a long time on Saturday evening after the final whistle. Partly, it seemed, this was because the Tartan Army could not believe the Euro 2008 dream was over.
Unable to move, unable to comprehend how Italy had been awarded the injury-time free-kick from which the winning goal was scored, they were stunned, dumbfounded, deflated. The collective mood raised just one question: After all this, is that it?
But, in pockets at first and then as a stadium in unison, came the lusty clarion call of an indefatigable faithful. "When you hear the noise, Of the Tartan Army boys, We'll be coming down the road."
If you've never seen the Tartan Army in full flow, search for "Tartan Army Paris March" on YouTube and watch the first clip with that exact title. The date was 12 September, and 20,000 Scottish fans marched, in deafening peace, from the Eiffel Tower to the Parc des Princes. They inspired what would prove to be the pinnacle of this campaign, a 1-0 win over France.
The spine-tingling atmosphere that night will linger long and deep for those who were there. And on Saturday, even in the moment of defeat, the embers of this remarkable campaign were being stoked to fire again. The positive memories will endure beyond the disappointment.
But what bitter disappointment it was, in manner at least, even by Scotland's own historically agonising standards. They got off to the worst possible start – conceding inside 70 seconds to Luca Toni after some truly amateur defending – then recovered to draw level in the second half, through Barry Ferguson, the captain.
For the next 20 minutes, they were Lions Rampant, threatening to tear the world champions apart. "We battered them," said the manager, Alex McLeish, and he was right. James McFadden, in particular, had a glorious chance to win the match in the 81st minute but could not make decent contact with Kenny Miller's cross when he met it, running, from eight yards.
"I'd love to be standing here having scored the goal that took us to the finals, but I'm not and that's hard to take," the mercurial Everton striker said. "I should have scored," he added with self-criticism that looks harsher each time you see a replay of the angle.
Worse was to come. In injury time, the score still stood at 1-1, which would have been enough for the Scots to progress should Ukraine beat France on Wednesday. (Not a hot bet, admittedly, but much hotter bets turned frigid on Saturday, as Russia, Croatia and others will testify).
Then Alan Hutton, in possession near his own byline, and perhaps about to launch a final glorious attack, was wiped out by a challenge from Giorgio Chiellini. No matter how many times you watch the replay, it's a dead-cert free-kick to Scotland. There is no other conclusion.
Yet the linesman, Spain's Juan Carlos Jimenez, indicated to the referee, Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez, that it was a free-kick to Italy. It was floated in and headed home for victory by Christian Panucci. It was an extraordinary decision, and denouement. "Italy are a good team, and we wish them luck," McLeish said. "But I thought they got a little bit of luck today."
The officiating was poor throughout. Two big decisions went against Italy. Antonio Di Natale was flagged offside after netting in the 31st minute but replays suggested a good goal, and Ferguson's equaliser, under scrutiny, looked offside. But neither of these calls were anywhere near the clear-cut aberration at the end.
And Scotland might have had a penalty, for handball by Gianluca Zambrotta. Other more deserving 50-50s also went against them.
There is, however, no shying away from the fact that Scotland holed their own hopes at the outset. Woeful, Awol defending allowed a throw-in to reach Di Natale in the box in the second minute. He zipped a pull-back for Toni, a 6ft 5in giant of a talent, to poke in.
Scotland were lucky not to be 2-0 down a minute later. Mauro Camoranesi blazed over. Gradually, the hosts settled. Ferguson shot over. Hutton headed narrowly wide. A flowing move ended with another Ferguson shot saved. David Weir's header on the cusp of half-time looked a goal until Andrea Pirlo came from nowhere to clear off the line. From the equaliser onwards, Italy barely had a look-in. Until the end.
Italy celebrated a first win on Scottish soil. Scotland trudged off, only to return for an ovation because the fans demanded it. "We couldn't believe it when someone came into the dressing room and told us most of the fans were still inside the stadium," Darren Fletcher said. "It put a lump in the throat ... they respected that we were in a tough group and they have respected what we achieved."
And they have achieved. A double over France. Eight wins altogether. An improved world ranking. A better seeding for next Sunday's 2010 World Cup qualifying draw. The rebirth of the national team's self-respect. Hope for the future.
Even assuming that one or two players from this campaign are near the end of their international careers – the central defenders, David Weir, 37, and Steven Pressley, 34, being prime examples – other stalwarts have several more years. The likes of Ferguson and McCulloch, both 29, have another campaign or two in them.
But it is the youth that really excites. The goalkeeper, Craig Gordon, is 24. Hutton, 22, was magnificent again on Saturday and will attract Premier League interest in January. Fletcher is still only 23. Scott Brown, a fulcrum for tomorrow, is 22. McFadden is 24, and Scotland have another five capped strikers the same age or younger, plus Miller, 27.
"We gave some of the big teams a fright," McLeish said yesterday. "And this group of players have got years ahead of them."
Arrivederci for now, but amen to that.
Scotland (4-1-4-1): Gordon (Sunderland); Hutton (Rangers), Weir (Rangers), McManus (Celtic), Naysmith (Sheffield United); Hartley (Celtic); Brown (Celtic), Fletcher (Manchester United), Ferguson (Rangers), McCulloch (Rangers); McFadden (Everton). Substitutes used: Miller (Derby) for Brown, 74; Boyd (Rangers) for McCulloch, 90.
Italy (4-3-3): Buffon (Juventus); Panucci (Roma), Cannavaro (Real Madrid), Barzagli (Palermo), Zambrotta (Barcelona); Gattuso, Pirlo, Ambrosini (all Milan); Camoranesi (Juventus), Toni (Bayern Munich), Di Natale (Udinese). Substitutes used: Iaquinta (Juventus) for Di Natale, 68; Chiellini (Juventus) for Camoranesi, 83; De Rossi (Roma) for Gattuso, 87.
Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).
Booked: Scotland Naysmith, McCulloch; Italy Toni.
Man of the match: Toni.