After the pain of Saturday’s draw with the Czech Republic, Scotland’s hopes of qualification for Euro 2012 are still just about alive. Likewise in club football, they are, as a nation, holding on to European football this season by the skin of their teeth. Celtic were re-instated into the Europa League after the conquerors in the preliminary round, FC Sion, were disqualified for fielding ineligible players.
Following the disastrous performances of the country’s top clubs in the Europa League, SPL managers came out in force to defend the standards of Scottish football amidst a barrage of criticism from pundits, predominately south of the border and also within Scotland. This week’s performances in European competition combined with a look back over recent history shows that the national game is in just as bad a state. Scotland is looking increasingly on its way, both domestically and as a national side, to joining the football minnows of the world.
It is a sad truth but there is no hiding from the evident and vast, drop in standards in the Scottish football. Long gone are the days when Celtic were the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967. A feat achieved with every player in the side dubbed the ‘Lisbon Lion’, as the final was played in Lisbon, being within 30 miles of the club’s ground, Parkhead. Truly something incredible that will never be repeated. On the national front, although never exactly setting tournaments alight, the Scottish side used to carry a certain pedigree.
This was especially evident in 1978 when they tore apart the Dutch, who had the world purring at their brand of total football, in a World Cup group match. In a 3-1 victory, midfielder Archie Gemmill scored one of Scotland’s greatest-ever goals. But, perhaps the most meaningful victory for any Scot was when they defeated England 3-2 at Wembley in 1967. The recently crowned World Champions were humbled by the Scottish left back, Jim Baxter, playing ‘keepie uppie’ in the middle of the pitch towards the end of the game. As England’s first defeat since they won the World Cup is widely regarded in Scotland as when they became ‘unofficial world champions.’
But one doesn’t have to dig that deep into the history books to find a, if not wholly successful, at least more respectable Scottish showing on the football pitch than the present. The national side until this century recently appeared in major tournaments fairly frequently. Yet there last showing was in 1998. In addition there was a time, in the not too distant past, when a top Scottish side meeting a top English side was genuinely a ‘Battle of Britain’, as opposed to the mauling served up by Tottenham at the expense of Hearts when they met at Tynecastle the other week. As recently as 2003 Celtic defeated Liverpool over two legs on their way to the UEFA Cup final. Celtic Park has also seen Manchester United held, as well as European giants AC Milan and Barcelona defeated, all in recent seasons.
Both Rangers and Celtic seemed to be making progress in European competition, Celtic successfully navigating the group stages two seasons running with Rangers also achieving that feat once. This mini heyday of recent found success culminated in both teams making it the group stages of the 2007-08 Champions League. Celtic being knocked out by Barcelona in the last 16 and Rangers finishing third in their group but going all the way to the UEFA Cup final, to be beaten by an Andrei Arshavin inspired Zenit St Petersburg. After last month’s defeats by unknown’s Sion and NK Maribor those recent successes must seem as distant as Jim Baxter, Archie Gemmill and the Lisbon Lions.
So what has bought Scottish football crashing back to the ground with such humbling exits, and one merciful reprieve? Many of the criticisms lodged at Scottish football are based around the nature of the old firm’s domination of the SPL. Although there is simply no denying that such a duopoly on success cannot be beneficial to the health of the game, it doesn’t explain the recent drop in quality as this is a problem that has constantly plagued the league.
Indeed it did not prevent the earlier successes mentioned and Alex Ferguson was able to put together a team that could break the duopoly and go on to enjoy European success. But even within the confines of a duopoly the league was still able to attract some top talent, to the old firm at least, in the shape of Paul Gascoigne or Henrik Larrson.
Money and the unrivalled growth of the Premier League though have had a far greater effect on Scotland’s domestic game than the perennial problem of the two team monopoly. The globalization of the game with the southern neighbour at its forefront has chastened Scotland’s development. The difference in money and resources available in the leagues on the different sides of the border is staggering. The Scottish League is simply unable to compete with its richer competitor to the south and as a result it has been all but consumed by it.
It started when top players would leave the old firm clubs for the big English clubs, then they starting leaving for mid-table clubs, then teams fighting for survival in the English Premiership. And now players leave to go and ply their trade in the Championship, as Kris Boyd did last year when he joined Middlesbrough after being the SPL’s record goal scorer. The mere possibility of playing in the Premier League has become so highly sought that the SPL has just been obliterated. It lacks the brand, money and now the fans to resist this domination.
Yet surely a weak league should not overly affect the performance of the national team. The Dutch and South American Leagues have been having their best players move on to Europe’s top clubs for decades now but have always managed to put out top quality national teams. The Scots have suffered this fate as well, but the national team has dropped from average to looking like they may never see a major competition again.
Unfortunately there is no clear answer so therefore no clear solution to Scotland’s recent problems. Maybe having a population of just over 5 million leaves a country lacking the required recruitment pool when trying to assemble world beaters in today’s game. Yet Uruguay, with an even smaller population, have been fantastic in recent years. Obviously not every small country can perform like this Uruguay team though. Perhaps Scotland can simply no longer produce players to compete at the very top level anymore.
Perhaps as a nation there is no longer the commitment and passion to football as there once was. Certainly going by declining ticket sales this can certainly be at least a contributory factor. Perhaps there is not the right infrastructure in place at youth level and across management. There is no denying that management is an area where the Scots are strong with 7 of the Premier League managers all coming from the Glasgow area. But possibly that is another element the EPL is draining from the Scottish game.
Yet there are some good players that wear Scottish colors, indeed the heart of its midfield now plays for England’s most established and successful clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool. And although foreign investment on the scale that an English club can attract is out of the question even for the old firm, but that is not to say the game has to slide into the gutter.
Money is not the only solution to football success and in the SPL’s case certainly cannot be with Rangers debt burden. The future may not look as rosy as its past, but that doesn’t mean the death knell for Scottish football is inevitable. It perhaps though has to accept its diminished status within world football.
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