Football: Calderwood slap happy for ultimate test

Scotland play the United States today in their last friendly before the World Cup. Phil Shaw talked to one of their key defenders
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FOOTBALL'S recent history is littered with post-match punch-ups between rival players in the tunnel leading from pitch to dressing-room. Colin Calderwood does things differently. He slaps himself about the face, and he does it before a match.

The practice is intended, the Tottenham and Scotland defender explains, "to get the adrenalin pumping and bring the game into focus". It is easy, however, to imagine how the sight of Calderwood psyching himself up might psych out opposing forwards during the World Cup finals.

A model of zen-like calm away from the sport, the 33-year-old Calderwood will re-enact his unusual ritual in the Robert F Kennedy Stadium here today. No matter that the fixture against the United States is a friendly. It is Scotland's last warm-up for France 98, and his competitive streak is slipping into overdrive.

A week next Wednesday, Craig Brown's team tackle the world champions, Brazil, in the opening game. For that occasion, Calderwood asserts, no self-respecting Scot will need motivation: "It's a fantastic match for us. Sampling the atmosphere is going to be incredible, though we're not going there just to make up the numbers."

As one who did not gain his first cap until he was 30, having spent most of his career in the lower divisions with Mansfield and Swindon, Calderwood is particularly appreciative of his opportunity: "I don't pinch myself about the way it's gone," he says. "It took me such a long time to get to this level that I was ready for it. I wasn't exactly an overnight success."

In a camp brimming with Celtic and Rangers fans, it is typical of Calderwood's resolute character that he remains loyal to his home-town team, Stranraer. To the bafflement of David Ginola and Jurgen Klinsmann, he also insists on keeping the radio on in Spurs' coach until their score is read out.

Field Mill, Mansfield, was where Calderwood began his career at 17. That setting is light years removed in scale and style from Giants Stadium, New Jersey. Yet there he was last Saturday, facing Colombia in a 2-2 draw which he regarded as a useful rehearsal for another South American side.

"They're not as strong as Brazil, but they are comparable in terms of technique and the ground was similar to the Stade de France. The pleasing thing was that we were stimulated by it rather than overawed. We should have won.

"Also, there won't be as many Brazilians there as there were Colombians. They made up about 90 per cent of the crowd. The neutrals may want to see Brazil play their football, but equally I'm sure a lot of people will back us as underdogs."

Last week's referee, an American, was asked by the Scots to interpret the new edict on tackles from behind as strictly as officials at the World Cup have been ordered to do. Calderwood, no slouch when it comes to ball- winning, was encouraged by the outcome.

"I thought it went well," he says. "As far as I'm aware, the rule states that the challenge mustn't `endanger an opponent'. That's fine as long as refs aren't conned by forwards taking theatrical dives at the slightest contact from behind.

"Players and officials are bound to interpret it differently and there'll probably be a rash of red cards. But provided we're not diving in, wrapping legs around people, it shouldn't be a problem."

Calderwood anticipates a sterner test against the Americans. He sees their athleticism as similar to that of Norway, another of Scotland's group opponents in France, and recalls a chastening 2-1 defeat by the US prior to Euro 96.

"Everyone expected us to win, but they were a decent side and they've improved since then. They beat Austria 3-0 away in a friendly, and we know from our qualifying group how difficult that was. They've also beaten Brazil, even if it wasn't their strongest line-up."

The US operate an unusual 3-6-1 formation. "That can be difficult for defenders," Calderwood admits, "though I can't believe the midfield will be a flat six. There'll be players breaking to support the front man."

That lone striker is likely to be Roy Wegerle, whom he remembers as a clever player from when they were both at Swindon (Wegerle was on loan).

The Scotland squad have taken Andy Goram's dramatic exit in their stride, the only change Calderwood observed being the increased media scrutiny. They have trained "pretty hard", but also indulged in his twin passions of golf and cards, not to mention the delights of Manhattan.

Tonight they return home to reintroduce themselves to loved ones. Next Thursday it is off to France. First, though, Calderwood is seeking a result to keep Scottish confidence bubbling and feel like a slap in the face for their hosts.