LONDON (AP) — Wearing traditional kilts and bonnets, thousands of Scotland football fans descended on London’s Trafalgar Square on Wednesday before their homeland’s first game in 14 years against neighbor and fierce rival England.
The match at Wembley Stadium comes 13 months before Scotland stages a referendum on whether to break away from the United Kingdom after more than 300 years of political union with England.
Pro-independence “Yes” signs were plastered onto lion statues in the shadow of Nelson’s Column and Scotland’s blue-and-white Saltire flag covered walls just a few hundred meters yards from Prime Minister David Cameron’s Downing Street office.
Police officers kept their distance at the edges of the square, allowing fans to down beer and climb into fountains, with bagpipes setting the tone for a party atmosphere in the sun.
Around 25,000 fans are estimated to have made the journey south for the 111th match against the “Auld Enemy” since the two countries’ first official meeting on the soccer field in 1872.
International soccer’s oldest rivals were forced to scrap their annual friendly matches in 1989 because of hooliganism. They previously had been called off only during the World Wars.
The three matches between the cross-border rivals since then have taken place because they were drawn to face each other in official competitions. The last was in 1999.
The English Football Association said a considerable amount of “intelligence-led work” has been carried out with police to prepare for the influx of fans from north of the border. Scottish police sent specialized hooligan spotters to London to work alongside the local force.
For many Scotland players and fans, the chance to face England is a high point for a national team — currently ranked 50th by FIFA — that has never won a major tournament and hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1998.
Its more populous neighbor, though, is ranked 14th and on course to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
But Scottish sporting spirits have been boosted after the country produced Britain’s first men’s Wimbledon champion since 1936, with Andy Murray winning the Grand Slam in July at the All England Club.
“He has certainly given us a huge spur,” said 67-year-old Roscoe Hendrie, who was wearing a Scotland shirt and kilt. “Hopefully we have got the spirit of Andy Murray and that lad will encourage everyone to do their best in tennis and everything else.”
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