1998 and all That
Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Faroe Islands, Georgia, Gibraltar, Israel, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro and San Marino.
Of the 55 member countries of UEFA, these footballing titans are the only nations not to have qualified for a major tournament since Scotland last did, at the 1998 World Cup in France. I was at Celtic Park as an 8 year old to watch us record a routine 2-0 win over Latvia to effectively clinch our place at that tournament, blissfully unaware that a whole generation would become adults without memory of seeing us back at that stage. After the latest shambles last week, another couple of these teams might soon be crossed off before Scotland.
When I was about 15, I chose to write an essay about a “transaction” for a Standard Grade English prelim exam. By that age I really should have known what the word meant, but I got it confused with “transition” and wrote a piece contending that Scottish football was in the middle of a period of change (I failed the paper for not answering the question – lucky it was just a prelim!). I argued that the recent slump in the sport could be attributed to our inability, in contrast to most other European nations, to adapt to a new era in which world class footballers no longer emerged organically from crowded tarmac streets but from multi-purpose academy systems with high-quality facilities and modern coaching. Young people of every western country have playstations and iPhones, yet they still manage to churn out good footballers.
That analysis has become a well-worn cliche, if it wasn’t already at the time, but whether we have embraced those changes or not, the results show no sign of improvement (although one big positive is the relative success of the women’s team, who have just qualified for their first major tournament).
If this is the answer, what, indeed, was the question? In the twelve years since I wrote that essay the Scotland men’s team have found new and creative ways to screw up every campaign, either by throwing it away from a good position or falling at the first hurdle; whether embarrassed at the hands of minnows or going down bravely in good old-fashioned glorious failure. There was Berti Vogts’ draws against the Faroe Islands and Moldova; Faddy’s despairing lunge against Italy which flew agonisingly wide; Ferguson and McGregor’s “Boozegate”; Iwelumo’s inexplicable open goal miss; Craig Levein’s 4-6-0 and his petty stand-off with Steven Fletcher; George Burley and his petty stand-off with Kris Boyd; final day stoppage-time defeats; and two miserable losses in Georgia on the two occasions qualification was genuinely in our hands.
It’s occurred to me Scotland supporters must suffer the biggest investment-reward deficit in international football. The day after the Poland game last year, I went on a brilliant trip with friends to visit our pals in Wales, which helped banish our blues. The pub was mobbed for the Rugby World Cup, but oddly empty for the football later as their team sealed qualification for the first time since 1958. Folk didn’t seem that fussed. By contrast, every campaign without fail, the tartan army descends in its thousands to far-flung corners of the continent. Our 3-0 away loss to an average Slovakia side took place in a seemingly half-empty stadium, with our fans making most of the noise. What other country of five million people regularly packs out a 50,000 seater arena, despite the dismal record on the pitch? Our attendances for domestic football are among the highest per head of population, yet increasingly Scottish clubs fail to make any impact on the European stage.
Maybe the problem is too many spectators and not enough people playing the game. Maybe it’s our chronic diet, or notorious relationship with alcohol. Maybe it’s the old boys network in the SFA; too set in their ways to implement the radical measures needed. Or maybe it’s even our collective defeatism, as if a tendency to bottle it is indelibly etched in our national character. Every time Scotland lose a big rugby or football match (or a referendum goes a certain way), social media explodes with self-flagellant sentiments, grimly and almost masochistically encapsulated by the iconic scene from Trainspotting about how shite it is being Scottish.
All things considered, the success of a particular sport in a country may seem a trivial concern. It’s an indulgence offered by our privilege. There are obviously far more important things in life, both here and in the rest of the world. But as football remains our most popular sport and pastime, it’s clear that improving the game at every level has real implications not only for society’s health and fitness, but for our common self-confidence and morale. Whether things might change someday, or we’re in terminal decline, remains to be seen.
Anyway, next month we brace ourselves for the Auld Enemy at Wembley, possibly Strachan’s final stand. England are at a low ebb themselves, but the thought of being handed a humiliating thrashing isn’t far-fetched.
Then again – a win would put us right back in it…