For the first time ever, tomorrow afternoon (21st March), Scotland will be competing against Kazakhstan in a football match. This is not the first time that a Scottish club has played Kazakh opposition. There have been 8 previous meetings and they are very evenly and symmetrically divided with 3 wins, 2 draws and 3 losses. But we're talking here about national sides, and the Scots will be pitting their 5.5 million population against the 18.3 million Kazakhs. And it's not just people numbers where Kazakhstan outweighs Scotland.
Kazakhstan's area is huge - it's the 9th biggest country in the world, at over 1 million square miles. Puny Scotland makes do with just over 30,000 square miles. In fact, Kazakhstan is bigger than all of western Europe. It's so big that although it's managed to get membership of UEFA, it still manages to butt up against China at its eastern border. In another measure, it is top of the list as the world's largest landlocked country. A sea-faring or shipbuilding nation they're not. They've no idea what beaches or waves are. However, the website WorldAtlas states that one of the advantages to being a landlocked nation is that "Landlocked countries are safe from invasions by sea." Yep, can't argue there.Kazakhstan is also home to the famed Baiykonur Cosmodrome. This was the old USSR's equivalent to Cape Canaveral and continues to be the primary launch site for all Russian Soyuz spaceflights. For the last 8 years, if you wanted to get to the International Space Station you have had to come to Baiykonur. There's been no American alternative since the Space Shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. However, following the successful test mission of Elon Musk's SpaceX company's Crew Dragon spacecraft a few days ago things are looking favourable for the manned flights to start later this year.
But this has nothing to do with the football. I've no idea how many of the Tartan Army will have attempted the journey, but it must be one of the most distant places they'll have had to travel to. From Hampden Park to Astana Stadium is 3,900 miles. Whatever mode of transport is used (and it won't be by boat!) it won't be straightforward or easy or cheap. I suspect a number of the team have taken a similar view, with drop-outs and call-offs from the squard mounting over the past few days. Amazingly, most of the unavailable players seem to believe they'll be fit to play against San Marino on Sunday, three days later. Suspicious, eh?
The player I really hope gets some share of match-time and the opportunity to perform well is Johnny Russell. Johnny plays for Sporting Kansas City and my best estimate is that his journey will almost be twice that of the other players and fans. Now that is dedication! As far as I can see he could pretty much have had his choice of which way round to travel: Astana is an enormous 11 hours ahead (or 13 hours behind?) Kansas City. Let's hope he travelled with plenty of days to acclimatise to this enormous jet-lag. I'm not sure how he will co-ordinate with the rest of the squad. The Scotland team's Head of High Performance (there's a job title!) has decided that during the entire time spent in Kazakhstan the squad will stay on UK time. They'll sleep, wake, eat, train and, hopefully, play according to UK hours to avoid jet-lag. So Johnny will either stay on Kansas City time and barely meet his team-mates, or have to put up with being moved only 5 hours out of sync. And if he is supposed to survive 5 hours difference, why couldn't the UK-based rest of the team put up with being 6 hours adrift in Astana? Strange, but let's hope it's not another tale to be filed in the records of Scottish excuses when viewed in hindsight.
What of the match itself? Well, Kazakhstan are currently 117th in the FIFA rankings, well below Scotland's 40th place. So you would reasonably expect Scotland to be able to secure three valuable away points here. But yet again, Scotland does have this atrocious history of tripping up on the apparently simple games. Someone once said, as Scotland were approaching the end of a match where a possible victory lay in wait, "Come on Scotland, don't Scotland this again!". Last year, at the time the draw for Scotland's qualifying group was made, the manager, Alex McLeish, said, "I believe we will have a chance." That's the fighting talk to motivate the troops, Alex! Surely, surely, an away win has to be in the offing?
UPDATE 21st MARCH - And the so-called match has just finished. These images of the mis-manager McLeish will show you that he was utterly wrong. Scotland did not have a chance. They got chased, harried and grandly thumped 3-0 by the team ranked 117th. Three-nil!! By a team that's lower than Haiti, Zimbabwe and Bahrain. For God's sake, that is only Kazakhstan's 5th win at home in 38 competitive games - that's how bad they are. Since 2010 they've only scored more than 2 goals once at home, and that was against Andorra. I imagine the press and other media will now be full of articles headlined "Was This The Worst Ever?" But the press don't phase Maestro Mcleish. When asked at a press conference later for his views on this tragic and catastrophic outcome, Big Eck performed a masterclass in PR positive spin by stating that Scotland had "started brightly" and even "had one chance just before they scored". "Started brightly?" Well, Kazakhtan's first goal was in the 6th minute of the game and their second 3 minutes later. I suppose you could call getting all 11 Scotland players on to the pitch in time for the start of the game 'starting brightly', but it's hard to see where else we shone.
Oh well, I guess we can all make plans for our summer holidays in 2020 - we won't be going to the European Championships that's for sure.