Top of the bandwidth stakes was Saturday's Webcast of the first leg on Sky Sports Online. TV delivery may ultimately be via the Web, but current streaming technology over typical dial-up connections rarely impresses, even though its provision is laudable and in great demand. The audio-visual feed from Hampden Park was as good as it gets - pixelated images that regularly break up, a sound track reminiscent of short wave radio reception in bad weather, and long periods of blank or frozen screens where the feed is temporarily lost. As kick-off approached, the Web began to move at the speed of treacle flowing down a shallow incline. It wasn't until 15 minutes after kick-off, and dialling in with five different Internet service providers, that I managed to receive more than a window showing error messages at the Webcast site.
Missing the first goal was annoying, as money was riding on the result thanks to a bet placed in the early hours at an online betting site. Online gambling is booming. Some analysts estimate that worldwide revenue from it will be pounds 750m this year and as much as pounds 1.3bn in 2001.
There are plenty of dodgy-looking sites based in the Caribbean which will take your money and offer tax-free bets. The UK pages are less of a gamble, even though you have to pay tax on the stake or winnings.
BlueSQ.com is a reputable site running on secure servers to protect credit and debit card details that are entered. Navigation is by tabs along the top of the screen, giving access to sports from international football to greyhounds and special wagers such as whether Michael Portillo will become Tory leader by the end of 2000. After registering card details, the site is simple to use. A pull-down menu takes you quickly to the page with the odds and buttons for accepting bets in the sport and event of your choice. There are good odds on Scotland overcoming a two-goal deficit on Wednesday.
Scotland's best chance could come in Uefa Striker, a football simulation from Infogrames available on PlayStation, and due for release on the Internet- friendly Dreamcast on 26 November (pounds 39.99). It should allow for infinitely variable recreations of the qualifiers, as well as the championships proper and any number of European club matches.
Football simulations are becoming so realistic you can watch them on a computer screen and find that you're reacting much as you would to a live TV match. It's a spooky experience, but with the virtual version there are no crowd worries, the quality is higher than a Webcast, you don't miss the goals, and you don't lose at the bookies.
Sky Sports Online
BlueSQ.com Online Betting