England, Scotland continue soccer’s oldest rivalry today


Wed, Aug 14, 2013 - Page 20

In international soccer, few rivalries are greater and none are older.

According to former Scotland coach Craig Levein, Scotland v England is “the ultimate contest. It really is as good as it gets.”

However, so fierce is the rancor, that a quarter of a century ago, facing a losing battle against rampant hooliganism, their annual matches had to be abandoned.

Now, for the first time since 1989, the old foes are meeting again at their choosing, despite sporadic fan violence returning to haunt soccer in recent years and presenting security fears ahead of today’s game.

A heavy police operation is in place across London as Wembley Stadium prepares to host the 111th meeting between the cross-border rivals since the first in 1872.

The Football Association said a considerable amount of “intelligence-led work” has been undertake, with the police prepared for an influx of fans from north of the border.

Police Scotland has sent specialized hooligan spotters to London to work alongside the London force, with officers particularly wary of fans amassing in the capital’s main square and drinking through the day.

“We are aware that traditionally Scotland supporters congregate in Trafalgar Square and this will form part of our policing operation,” the Metropolitan Police said in a statement, describing their plan as “appropriate and proportionate.”

It will be a friendly in name, but not necessarily in nature.

“There will be lots of banter,” England coach Roy Hodgson said. “There will be lots of insults flying across the way, but it will all be done in a reasonably good spirit.”

The only England-Scotland games since 1989 have been in official competitions, with the neighbors facing off at the 1996 European Championship in London, and home and away three years later in a Euro 2000 playoff.

In May, fears of violence proved unfounded when England played the Republic of Ireland for the first time since disorder forced their last fixture in 1995 to be abandoned, raising hopes that today’s game will also pass off peacefully.

However, in 2011 when England hosted another neighbor, Wales, a visiting supporter was killed in an attack outside Wembley by an England fan, who was later jailed for three years.

“I trust the fans,” Hodgson said. “I think the behavior of fans has improved enormously. We did have a little period many years ago when fan behavior was a problem, but an awful lot has been done and fans are more responsible.”

Hodgson, though, is old enough to remember when soccer grounds were a different, less welcoming, environment.

As is Scotland coach Gordon Strachan.

He was at Wembley on his honeymoon in 1977 when, after a memorable 2-1 victory, Scotland fans poured onto the pitch, ripping up pieces of turf to take home and tearing down the goals.

A peaceful Euro 96 game, which England won 2-0, offered hope the rivalry could be resumed with regular meetings. However, three years later, there were running battles between fans in Glasgow around the first leg of their Euro 2000 playoff, leading to more than 200 arrests. England won 2-0 at Hampden Park and qualified despite losing 1-0 on home soil.

It is only the FA’s 150th anniversary that has brought the rivals back together on a soccer pitch amid a congested fixture calendar where England seek more competitive and lucrative games.

Adding to the intrigue is the possibility that by the next time the teams meet, the “Auld Enemy” could have broken away from Britain.

A referendum in September next year is to determine whether Scotland ends more than 300 years of political union with its more populous southern neighbor.