Field of Dreams
Situated in the south-east of Glasgow, it is, quite simply, one of the biggest and best stadiums ever built. For well over a century, for generations of feverish Scottish football (soccer) supporters, it has been a field of dreams.
Hampden opens in 1903, with capacity crowds regularly in excess of 100,000. On too many occasions to count, the venue holds viewers in thrall, captured by its magic spell. One of the most iconic stadiums in the world, it hosts thrilling games, superstar talents. Is the site of historic successes and scintillating finals. Of crushed hopes and broken promises.
In 1937, over 149,000 fans congregate for a Scotland vs England match. Folklore has it that an additional 20,000 spectators, all without tickets, also somehow find their way inside the ground.
In 1960, then again in 1967, Hampden hosts the European Cup Final. In 2002, then five years later as well, the UEFA Champions League final. In between, in 1970, over 136,000 watch Celtic battle Leeds United, the largest ever crowd to watch a club match.
Indeed, the “Hampden Roar” enters sporting vernacular, reflecting the home crowd’s attempt to intimidate opposing teams by the sheer passion and volume of their support. This certainly is the case in a 1976 match, when Scottish talisman Kenny Dalglish, he of the 102 caps and 30 international goals, nutmegs England goalkeeper Ray Clemence in a famous 2-1 victory.
Still, of all the magnificent and significant Hampden occasions over the years, the greatest is still to come. It will take place on Wednesday June 1, 2022. In the penultimate step to World Cup qualification, Scotland will face Ukraine.
It will be a meeting for the ages. An event that, given the current bitter and edgy state of affairs in Europe, will transcend sport.
It certainly will be no normal game. How can it be, with the unprovoked, unrelenting Russian assault on the Ukraine entering its fourth month? A brutal, medieval style onslaught, directed by demonic president Vladimir Putin, rains death and destruction in equal measure.
The carnage continues, despite heroic Ukrainian counterattacks and, more recently, increasingly desperate attempts to stall Russian advances in the Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The cities of Bucha, Mariupol, and Kharkiv, of Sieverodonetsk, are in the news for all the wrong reasons.
Furthermore, absolute horror stories emerge, from relentless shelling to civilian massacres to the indiscriminate killing of children. Severe food and water shortages, reports of executions, rape, torture, and looting, further dominate the headlines.
Mediation or diplomacy, to bring an end to the conflict, seem a long way off. Moreover, concerns grow that the desire of USA and other western powers to provide ongoing military, financial and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, as well as continue to apply crippling economic sanctions on Russia, is starting to wane.
Without question, matters of life and death that could dramatically shape the future of Europe, and by extension the world, are at stake.
Certainly, this cruel and desperate backdrop dwarfs the myriad difficulties facing Ukraine in preparing properly for a World Cup qualifier. The actual game and its result are, in comparison to the devastating events back home, insignificant. The national squad, its members dotted all about the European continent, has not played a proper match in over seven months, reduced instead to a handful of friendlies against club teams. Still, if by their efforts vs Scotland, the Ukrainian players lift spirits and inspire their nation, resonate on some level with millions of others around the globe, the exercise will have considerable value.
And so, I expect Ukraine to perform strongly, spurred on by a singular motivation at a very special venue. The players will give everything for their country, represent as best possible the rightful heroes, those men and women fighting in the streets and in the trenches against overwhelming odds, the incalculable number of others displaced or huddling forlornly in bombed out apartment blocks, basement shelters and improvised bunkers.
In my mind, I envisage the pre-game ceremonies, including a stirring rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. No doubt, many players, overcome with emotion, will shed tears. Others will bravely sing. Listen carefully for the words “shche ne vmerta Ukrayina, ni slava, ni volya”. The translation, that Ukraine’s freedom has not yet perished, nor has her glory, rings achingly true.
I want Scotland to compete equally hard, to not be cowed or restrained by the setting. Likewise, during the game, may the Hampden Park faithful be in full voice, though this time a warm and friendly roar clearly audible two thousand kilometres to the east.
Most of all, may the capacity crowd proudly and pointedly display a sea of blue and yellow flags, so sending an irrefutable message of comfort and support to all those in Ukraine engaged on the frontlines, struggling or in strife.
I look forward to the occasion. To sense the love and affection, but also the fervor, the impact and the intensity.
May you feel it as well.
Editor's note - June 1, 2022 - Ukraine 3, Scotland 1