Scotland's Euro 2024 draw guessing game reaches climax: Why Steve Clarke is keeping counsel, Italian job and fancy concert hall
The guessing game will finally end at a little after 6pm local time on Saturday here in Hamburg, when Steve Clarke and 20 other managers learn their fate as the draw is made for next summer’s European Championship finals.
Of course, expecting the details to start arriving “just after” six might be a little optimistic considering the almost impressive way these events are turned into drawn-out affairs these days. But at least VAR has not been rigged up inside the impressive Elbphilharmonie concert hall, or the Elphi as it’s known locally.
There might be a practice run through but there won’t be a review if Scotland are pulled out of the hat with Italy from Pot Four, as much as we might want it. This is where it starts to get real. This is where the 2-0 win over Spain, the last-gasp comeback victory in Oslo and the effort put in by a crew of moppers to ensure the home clash with Georgia in June was not abandoned starts to really mean something. Like colour flooding into a black and white illustration, the landscape will suddenly burst with detail. Fans will be able to map out routes and fill in the blanks. Some have already booked rooms in all ten host cities.
The Elphi juts out into the middle of the Elbe river. It is notable for another reason. Opened in 2017, it’s about the only venue in Hamburg that doesn’t claim the Beatles once played in it. One of the band's manifestos ought to be observed by the managers in attendance, Clarke among them. Let it be. There’s nothing they can do now except watch and listen as hosts Pedro Pinto, a "communications professional", and German actress-turned-presenter Esther Sedlaczek steer the evening, with "eleven legendary players" promised as guests.
Jonas Kaufmann, a tenor, and David Garrett, described as one of the leading violinists in the world, provide the entertainment in a "pre-draw" concert, along with the National Youth Orchestra of Germany. As we were saying, it could be a long night. Built on top of a former warehouse, the Elphi’s glassy exterior is meant to resemble a hoisted sail – or an iceberg. There will be plenty of metaphor options for sports writers.
Perhaps the largest potential iceberg as far as Scotland are concerned are the aforementioned Italy, whose Pot 4 occupancy means the reigning champions are the ultimate lurkers. Luciano Spalletti's side are just waiting to blow a hole in someone's hull. But then Scotland have proved that they are just as capable of coming unstuck against lesser lights, with Pot 2 containing the perhaps surprising – and worrying – name of Albania.
Alongside Italy, Serbia and Switzerland are the other two countries we know for certain are in Pot 4. Neither can be described as desirable opponents. No wonder Clarke repeatedly said that it didn’t matter to him which pot Scotland ended up in. As it is, Scotland’s billeting in Pot 3 is probably preferable to Pot 2, which was still a possibility before the final qualifier against Norway. As well as meaning the Scots cannot meet the Netherlands at the group stage, it guarantees there will be no reunion with Croatia and Czech Republic, who overcame Scotland at Hampden at Euro 2020 in a manner that suggested the eternal goal of reaching the knockout stage might be as far away as ever.
Clarke responded by stressing the goal was to get back to a major finals as quickly as possible. A World Cup semi-final play-off defeat to Ukraine meant the first attempt was a failure, albeit there were mitigating factors given that it felt like the whole world was against Clarke’s men. Scotland have made it back to a European Championship finals at the first time of asking. Although it is the second appearance at this particular tournament in three years, it's now 28 years since Scotland's name featured in the draw for a European Championships when they were guaranteed to actually appear in it.
Last time around, in November 2019, Scotland were not among the 20 of the 24 finalists who had already qualified. They were one of four hopefuls seeking backdoor qualification through play-off Path C. Norway, Serbia and Israel made up this quartet and while it was nice just being in the mix, there was nothing like the same sense of anticipation. Clarke did not feel it necessary to travel to that draw in Bucharest, for example. He will of course be in attendance in the snowy streets of Hamburg, with the city providing some pre-draw entertainment of its own: Friday night’s Stadtderby between St Pauli and SV Hamburg.
It’s poignant to consider the last time Scotland were safely in the draw for the European Championship finals. Michael Jackson was at No 1 with Earth Song and Craig Brown and Terry Venables, both of whom we have lost this year, were posing with the Henri Delauney trophy after Scotland were paired with England. It had been assumed there would be ways and means of keeping them apart. The headline on the front page of The Scotsman the following morning underlined why: Security fears as Scotland draw England and return to Wembley. There’s every chance the fixture will be repeated next summer. Some Scots want it, reasoning that the fiery nature of a derby clash is a great equaliser. Others would rather not play a team that can call on Jude Bellingham’s brilliance.
Interviewed on the eve of the draw in Birmingham in 1995, the always accessible Brown had voiced a preference not to get England, since he feared interest in the game would become all-consuming at the expense of the other two matches in the group. Of course, the countries came out of the hat together the next day. "Tel Gets Porridge!" bellowed the Daily Mirror, with Venables entangled in court proceedings involving his business ventures at the time.
Similar happened before the 1998 World Cup draw in Marseille, when Brown expressed the hope Scotland would avoid the South American teams. They duly opened the tournament against Brazil in front of an estimated TV audience of one billion. No wonder Clarke has chosen to keep his counsel until Scotland’s task next summer has become a lot clearer. At least Brazil are off the cards.