It is international football’s oldest rivalry. It was born 42 years before Argentina-Brazil and 91 years before Algeria-Egypt. Finally, after over a decade-and-a-half without a competitive slugfest, England-Scotland is back. The Auld Enemies’ reunion is not the only attraction in Group F, as Slovakia and Slovenia reignite a rivalry that began in South Africa 2010 qualifying.
England and Scotland first battled in 1872. Incredibly, for the next 117 years – outside of World War I and World War II – the teams played a competitive fixture in every single year, with their win percentages almost even. A fixture both sets of supports so relish has, however, become infrequent, with their last competitive clashes unfolding in 1999. Naturally, the news that the wait would end – and in the race for places in the daddy of all competitions – created a booming buzz both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border. England – having appeared in fewer FIFA World Cups™ than only Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Mexico, beaten Scotland in their previous two qualifiers, and boasting wunderkind Raheem Sterling and the talismanic Wayne Rooney – are the favourites. The Scots nevertheless have solid players such as Craig Gordon, Darren Fletcher and Steven Naismith, a never-say-die attitude, the enlivening Tartan Army behind them and a desperation to return to a tournament they last graced in 1998, and in which they have crafted some marvellous memories – one courtesy of their current manager Gordon Strachan’s comical goal celebration at Mexico 1986.
Slovakia and Slovenia will resume another rivalry in Group F. The Slovakians lost twice to the Slovenians in qualifying for the 19th World Cup. However, Martin Skrtel, Marek Hamsik and Co curiously captured that competitive section’s automatic ticket, before Samir Handanovic and team-mates joined them at South Africa 2010 via the play-offs.
*Did You Know? *
Five Slovaks have participated in the World Cup Final. Stefan Cambal appeared in Czechoslovakia’s 2-1 loss to Italy in 1934, while Viliam Schrojf, Jan Popluhar, Andrej Kvasnak and Adolf Scherer competed in the 3-1 loss to a Garrincha-inspired Brazil in 1962. In the run-up to that decider, four of the Czechoslovaks’ six goals were scored by Slovaks.
Sir Matt Busby, who played for and managed Scotland, was born to Lithuanian parents. The former midfielder was the brains behind Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’, who wowed English football and won three top-flight titles before being decimated by the Munich Air Disaster. Busby was twice read his last rites because of that tragedy, but remarkably recovered to rebuild a new United side that seized more domestic silverware and the 1967/68 European Cup.
Only two of the section’s six sides have a national-team stadium in their capital: England and Lithuania, who play at Wembley in London and the LFF Stadium in Vilnius. Slovenia don’t have a home and rotate the venue of their matches, while Scotland and Slovakia entertain guests at Hampden Park in Glasgow and the Stadion pod Dubnom in Zilina respectively. Curiously, Malta’s base, the Ta' Qali National Stadium, is situated in the picturesque little village of Attard, which is famous for its citrus orchards, botanic gardens and rustic farmhouses.
The stat *
*40 – The number of World Cup qualifiers Malta had before capturing their maiden victory. Kris Laferla secured that 1-0 success in Estonia in 1993, cannily clipping the ball over cap-wearing keeper Mart Poom. They had to wait another 20 years and 48 games for their next, when Michael Mifsud scored the only goal away to Armenia.