Alex Massie

Scotland, oh,Scotland

Scotland, oh,Scotland
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Well, that's that. So close to glory, yet so far.

If ever anyone asks you to explain the quintessence of the Scottish footballing experience you need merely point them towards this afternoon's game at Hampden Park. Every essential element was duly present. Hope. Fear. Calamity. Melodrama. Passion. Joy. Purgatory. Glory. And finally, that familiar friend Disaster. As it always seems to be, watching Scotland play football was to hop on a switchback that would take you to the top of the highest mountain - with just a momentary pause to admire the splendour of the view and the freshness of the air - before plunging back into the deepest, darkest valleys of despair. And then repeat the process just for fun. Whatever else it might be, it's one hell of a ride.

To begin with there was the agony of hope. As kick-off loomed and the rain lashed down in Glasgow we managed to forget that we were playing the world champions. Italy? Well, why not? Common sense - and the memories of so many disappointments over so many years - predicted doom, yet optimism stubbornly refused to lie down, rearing its insistent head to the point where we could kid ourselves that today might actually be the day for a footballing miracle.

Yet the miracle, in retrospect, was that we were even in this position. The draw for next summer's European Championship qualifiers was a matter for dark mirth. Throwing Scotland into a group with Italy and France (who contested the 2006 World Cup final after all) and Ukraine (who merely made the quarter-finals) seemed like overkill. This was a country, after all, that had slipped behind Burkina Faso in the FIFA World Rankings. Even gallows humour, the traditional lager-laced antidote to calamity, couldn't make up for that indignity.

So to find ourselves still alive in this, Scotland's final match of the qualifying campaign, was itself preposterous. To hell with common sense: if we could make it this far, why not one match further? Victory against Italy would guarantee passage to Austria and Switzerland next summer; a draw would keep hope alive, so long as the Ukraine defeated France on Wednesday. There we were then: Irrational enthusiasm wrestling the nagging suspicion that providence was lying in wait, armed with the lead piping.

In other words, it's fair to say that the nation was in a state of acute psychological distress before the game even started.

And then it did.

And Italy scored after 90 seconds.

Playground defending gifted Luca Toni a goal Craig Gordon was hapless to prevent. Deflation. Resignation. Time to draw comfort for the stirring run so far and draw consolation from the twin victories against France. A shame it had to end this way, of course, but the boys have given their all.

For the first twenty minutes we were third in a two horse race. Italy should have scored a second and could consider themselves unlucky to have had a goal chalked off for a marginal off-side. 3-0 to the visitors wouldn't have been an entirely unfair reflection of the first 30 minutes. Turns out the World Champions are still a pretty useful side after all.

You could deal with that, appreciating that class will tell and it's unreasonable to suppose that Scotland - even a much improved Scotland - could hope to win three of four matches against the clearly superior French and Italians. Order was being restored to the footballing universe and if all wasn't exactly right with the world it had at least a certain grim and recognisable reality to it.

Enter Scotland once again. No side in the world is better than Italy at defending a 1-0 lead than Italy. Yet there's something in the Scottish way of playing this game that responds to the call of the pipes and the sound of the charge. As the first-half ended a David Weir header was cleared off the line - though for one blissful, misleading moment, it looked as though it had crossed the goal-line. Still, set pieces were causing the Italians problems. Hope may have been battered but she had not sunk yet.

Roared on by the Tartan army in full and great voice, Scotland clawed their way back into the game in the second half. The longer the game endured, the greater the belief that seemed to course through Scottish veins. There was a poise and on occasion even a finesse to their play. At long last Alan Hutton found space to rampage forward and now it was the men in dark blue jerseys winning most of the 50-50 confrontations in midfield. Something was stirring.

That Barry Ferguson's goal, when it came in the 65th minute, was an awkward squib of a thing mattered not a jot. Nor could allowing that there was a hint of offside to proceedings in any way diminish the beauty of the moment. After the frenzy subsided, you could afford a wry smile and quip how typical it was of Scotland to toy with our emotions like this. The impossible dream was alive again. Bloody hope was prevailing.

Momentum was with the home side by now and for a moment you could even afford the luxury of putting your paranoia to rest. Scotland were rampant and deservedly so. They weren't just riding their emotions either, they were playing proper football. This was no mere hump and hope; rather a thrilling alliance of pace and passion. Half chances were teased open. With 15 minutes left a neutral observer would have been forced to admit that the home side looked the likelier to score.

Which made McFadden's miss at the end of the best footballing move in the match all the more agonising. It was cruel fortune that the player - as modest off the pitch as he is impish on it - who'd done more than most to raise Scotland to these unfamiliar, nose-bleeding heights should be the one to miss the chance that would have sealed an astonishing and, at that point entirely merited, victory. Hope took a dent then, only to be rallied by the idea that perhaps, just perhaps, the Ukrainians might rise above their station and defeat the French. Still, deep down you knew that it was tempting fate to miss that sort of opportunity. The gods like punishing profligacy.

But that was no excuse for what happened next. We're inside the final minute now and Hutton is clattered by Giorgio Chiellini. The Scot is sent flying and the ball runs out of play. The one decision the referee - Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez - can't give is a free-kick to Italy. That, of course, is the decision he comes to. It is inexplicable. Baffling. Sheer incredulity abounds. The pub is silenced by the wonder of it. This makes no sense.

Which makes it inevitable  - as you knew it would - that Andrea Pirlo chips the ball into the box and Christian Panucci gets a head to it to send it past poor Gordon for the goal that sends us out and confirms that France and Italy progress to the finals.

There's losing and then there's losing like this. It's a blow that leaves you breathless. The Scotland players are stunned. The fans are stunned. It's a shocking, absurd way to crash out the tournament.

The rage will pass of course. It's only momentary anyway. Right now everyone's just standing around with a comical look on their faces because each and every one of the poor sods has been kicked in the guts. In time you hope you'll be able to laugh at the nonsensical way this has ended. But right now there's just that familiar crushing emptiness.

And yet there's also something else in the air tonight. For once - McFadden's missed chance and a moment of terrible defending notwithstanding - we've given it our best shot and it's not been quite enough. On nights like these, you can never entirely banish the sens e of what might have been and sure enough, this can be added to 1958, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1992, 1998 and 2000 as a year in which Scotland came close to finding glory only to be denied at the last minute*. At least this time, mind you, we didn't throw it away ourselves.

So, yes, it is as it always is: Disaster for Scotland. But that's not quite the story. Not this time. There's a defiant, resilient pride too. They can take our dreams but they can't deny us that. Not this time. This crop of unheralded players have done something significant. God forgive them - and us - but they've made the country believe again. Today's loss isn't terminal. In fact it feels as much the beginning of something as its end. Aye, there's the rub, failure doesn't come much more glorious than this. Not when it comes with honour attached. The boys did their best and it was mighty, even if it wasn't, at the end, quite enough.

Or at least - since we're on this couch - that's what your inner-shrink is saying. These young lads have time on their side. McManus, Gordon, Hutton, Fletcher, Brown and McFadden will be the spine of the team for years yet. Hope lives. There's no need for the traditional lament, Can We No Anything Right?

Who needs Europe anyway, when you can raise your eyes to loftier peaks? Bring on the World! One song ended tonight, but there's another tune to be played once the World Cup qualifying draw is made later this month and, for better or for worse, the whole thrilling, gut-shredding, ghastly beauty starts up all over again.

God help us all.

*UPDATE for clarity's sake: not always literally at the last minute. And it's not a question of blaming fate or supposing that there's some sort of curse. Rather a frustration at our inability to take our own chances. We haven't achieved what we'd want because, in the end, we haven't been good enough. The frustration comes from knowing that several of these Scotland sides were good enough that they should have done better but that, for one reason or another, they' bloody didn't.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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