Scotland back at last, takes on Czech Republic at Euro 2020

GLASGOW, Scotland — Scotland’s nearly quarter-century wait is about to end.

The Scots haven’t competed in a major men’s soccer tournament since the 1998 World Cup in France, but that will change on Monday when the team takes on the Czech Republic at the European Championship.

It’s been a long time coming for the Tartan Army. And although there isn’t much expectation for a serious run at Euro 2020, the Scottish fans are happy to be here.

That was evident on Saturday night with Glasgow in full party mode just a week after the city’s restaurants and pubs were allowed to reopen indoor seating areas.

Dozens of fans sang near the main George Square, and street stalls sold “No Scotland, No Party” flags. There was no sign of the sectarianism that has blighted club soccer in this city.

The main objective for Scotland coach Steve Clarke will be to get at least a draw against the Czech Republic, and hope they can advance to the next round from Group D.

“The Czech Republic give us different problems to England and Croatia, so that can have a bearing on selection, but I am pretty settled (on the team),” Clarke said.

One of the biggest headaches for Scotland ahead of the tournament was that two of his best players, captain Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney, normally play in the same position at left back.

But Clarke has found a way to make it work, with both playing on the left — Tierney in a back three and Robertson in a more advanced role at left wingback. And the coach also has to decide whether to start 20-year-old Billy Gilmour, who has impressed of late.

“The good thing for me is that no matter who I select, I expect them all to be fantastic for their country,” Clarke said. “As a manager or a coach, that’s a big thing that you can trust all your players.”

There have been some bumps along the way. Scotland had to set up its training camp in northeast England because the team qualified for the postponed tournament one year after its group rivals.

That allowed Croatia and Czech Republic to book Scotland’s premier training bases at St. Andrews and the national training center in Edinburgh. But then last month they canceled plans to use them, citing UEFA concerns about local COVID-19 rules in Scotland.

But Clarke has said that there are benefits, with less distractions than if the team’s camp was based in Scotland.

One distraction Scotland hasn’t wanted is the recent criticism that the team’s players won’t take a knee before kickoff of Euro 2020 matches. Clarke argued that the purpose of the anti-racism gesture “has been diluted and undermined by the continuation of abuse towards players.” Instead, he said the team would “stand up” to racism.

The team backtracked slightly and said it would kneel before kickoff of Scotland’s match against England at Wembley Stadium in London on June 18.

“We will show solidarity with our counterparts in England, many of whom are teammates of our own players, and who have found themselves on the receiving end of abuse from fans in recent international matches,” Clarke said.

The Czech Republic is also trying to shake off a very different racism scandal, which runs deeps in Glasgow. Ondřej Kúdela is appealing against a 10-match ban for racially abusing a Black opponent, Rangers midfielder Glen Kamara, in a Europa League match in March in the city.

Czech players say they are against racism in any form and just want to focus on the tournament. And that means playing the energetic, high-pressing game that the team is known for.

The Czechs know their opponents well after losing twice to Scotland in the Nations League last year.

“Scotland are sturdy, tough, and have a good defense. Big, strong, aggressive,” Czech Republic coach Jaroslav Šilhavý said. “They break fast.”

One of the key players Šilhavý will be relying on to break up Scotland’s attack is box-to-box midfielder Tomáš Souček, who had a standout season with West Ham along with club teammate Vladimír Coufal.

The team will be looking for goals from Bayern Leverkusen forward Patrik Schick, who will be looking to impress at the tournament.

The Czech Republic is trying to bounce back after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And Scotland could be just that opponent to get that going, with the motivation there for revenge after last year’s defeats.

“I think it may be third time lucky,” Šilhavý said. “We will get there.”

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