Why can’t Scotland get to the World Cup semi finals?

As Scotland fans are reduced to the desperation of schadenfreude and Harry Kane memes, Neal Stewart asks Why can’t Scotland get to the World Cup semi finals?

It’s a question that haunts the dreams of hard-bitten Scottish football fans like myself, especially when countries of a similar size make it in the way that Croatia so heroically did against Brazil this week, sparking a conversation that was done to death when Croatia did the same four years ago, or Uruguay in 2010. 

It’s a well-trodden path, that brings forward a host of arguments both worth listening to (a lack of investment, poor adaptation to the modern game) or worth laughing at (our climate or genetic inadequacy). Regardless, they are arguments that have dogged the Scottish game since we went from relative overachiever in global terms, to perennial also-ran around the 1990s. 

As someone well-versed in all these arguments – who remembers the SFA’s first ‘Think Tank’ on the future of the game, led by legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels? – I’ve often found them rather incomplete, especially when it comes to answering two huge political questions at the heart of it. 

Who owns Scottish football? And who runs it?

Now in terms of ownership, on the professional and semi-professional level, there are a range of ownership model, from fan-owned clubs (soon hopefully to be joined by my own Partick Thistle), clubs owned by wealthy individuals (Celtic, Hibs, or Aberdeen), by groups of wealthy individuals (Rangers), or as is the case in much of the Scottish league, by groups of local worthies and small business owners. 

In terms of running the game at pretty much most levels, the Scottish Football Association now administers and oversees much of the game, from professional to amateur. The SFA also owns and operates our national stadium, and distributes funding down to the grassroots. This gives it power to set the tone for the rest, something they’ve not always got right, to put it kindly. 

But when we get to these grassroots, its a very different picture: our beloved national game is usually played on public parks owned and run by local councils (or private companies on their behalf). It could be said therefore that on the level on which the game is most widely practiced, from youngsters taking their first steps in the game to pub and churches leagues on Saturday mornings, the game is owned and run by local councils, ostensibly for our benefit. 

And what a dismal job they tend to do of it, and how little it is discussed! I grew up playing organised football on the old Toryglen blaes pitches (I think I still have the mitre mouldmaster scars to show for it) where we were rushed in and out of inadequately heated, leaky changing huts by hard-pressed jannies. 

That changed through the 90s as councils took advantage of New Labour reforms offered to outsource or monetise the running of these facilities, going from municipal paternalism to neoliberal nirvana almost overnight, and ensuring that the facilities where the majority of Scots played football weren’t merely uninviting, they were uninviting and expensive. 

So why do we talk about the ownership of our sporting assets so rarely?

This was a reality that was further laid bare to me as I got into my teens. I actually was a much better rugby player than a footballer as it turned out, and most weekends turned out for my local team. In terms of facilities, there was no comparison. We had our own clubhouse, regular dressing room and access to gym facilities: but that wasn’t the only thing. 

The rugby club was also a social hub: we came in after games to a bar propped up by old players who asked us how we’d got on, where we could buy a can of juice and bag of crisps after the game: there was usually rugby on the telly, or we could go out and see the games played by other youth teams, or the first, second or veterans XV. It was overall a far more convivial way of doing things. 

Now, you don’t need to be Darren McGarvey to work out that there is an overwhelming class dimension to all of this: it’s a banal fact of Scottish life whereby the posh sports are played by the middle classes in purpose built-and-run facilities that benefit from long term investment and stewardship, whereas the rest play the national game in under-resourced, costly public parks that are often padlocked and unavailable to the wider community when not in use.

But what if we could make these council owned and run football pitches more like the rugby clubs?

I can’t comment much on the reasons behind Croatia’s incredible overachievement, but I do know a little bit about another small-ish European nation that regularly makes its way to the latter stages of World Cups: I lived for a year and a bit in Leiden in the Netherlands, and in between completing my Masters, managed to work in a pub and play a bit of total football. 

It was essentially a pub team: one of the guys I worked with, a few of the regulars and their pals. But we played for an actual club, with its own ground and clubhouse. By all means, it was the 6th team and even the first team weren’t up to all that much, but we played against teams all across South Holland, and in doing so I think I learned a wee bit about Dutch society and why they are so good at football – interestingly enough it had nothing to do with diet and fitness, as we played most weeks pretty hungover, and half the team smoked in the dressing room.

Our home ground was owned by the local council, but leased to the club and run by volunteers: this had allowed them to bring together a fairly modest but functional set-up where players in the range of junior and adult teams, men and women, were able to access the facilities and more importantly have somewhere to go after the game. 

On our travels we came across plenty other modest neighbourhood clubs like ours, but also quite a few top amateur and semi-pro teams (The Netherlands only really has two professional leagues: the amateur and semi-pro set-up is a hidden gem), including the rather humorously named Quick Boys, from the fishing town of Katwijk between The Hague and Amsterdam. As I mentioned I played for the club’s 6th team: when we played against Quick Boys, we played their 29th team, and as I later discovered there were actually quite a few more after that. 

Katwijk is something of a hot bed of Dutch amateur football, with Quick Boys, Katwijk FC and Rijnsburgse Boys all playing at the third level of the national game. Yet, below that were upwards of 100 adult amateur teams playing each weekend, in a town of 65,000 inhabitants. Not only that, they did so in facilities that were well run, accessible and run mainly by volunteers from the local community. Whether owned outright by the council or not, these are organisations that have a high level of community involvement and identity. 

And while the public health benefits of having well run clubs at the heart of communities, allowing kids and adults of all levels and abilities access to proper facilities and coaching has understandable public health benefits, these clubs also nourish the elite levels of the game. 

That day in Katwijk we got changed in a complex named after the town’s most famous son, and former Quick Boys player, Dirk Kuyt, the son of a local fisherman. The facilities had been upgraded when the club had earned its slice of his transfer from Feyenoord to Liverpool: and these bonds between the national team and the amateur clubs that sustain it remains cause for celebration, like this summer when the Oranje’s players celebrated national football day by training in their first clubs’ jersey’s before an international friendly.

And while I was playing football across these clubs in Holland, it wasn’t the only sport being practiced: many of these clubs were in fact polysport clubs, usually collocated with other outdoor sports like hockey or even sometimes cricket and rugby. While some aspects of the model were exceptionally Dutch (with echos of long-forgotten sectarianism sometime present in the names of Protestant or Catholic clubs), this model of community-based polysport clubs is actually fairly well spread through Western Europe, with Scotland and the UK the outlier. 

Take this World Cup’s star player Kyllian Mbappé: before entering the elite finishing school of French football at Clairefontaine, the young World Cup winner took his first steps in the game at the local omnisports club in the Parisian suburb of Bondy. There his dad coached youth teams and his mother was a top-level handball player: a quick look at the website of AS Bondy demonstrates not only the wide range of sports on offer, but the close links it obviously has with local and regional government and the community it serves. 

Now, there are clearly myriad factors behind the seeming under-performance of our national football team but I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that this political and bureaucratic element of the game is sorely neglected. 

After all, if football is essentially owned by local councils, it is owned by us: and if it is run by local councils it is run by us. So why don’t we act like it?

There are green shoots, although they were often brought on by the reality of stretched local government budgets through the pandemic. For example, the community asset transfer of the Barlia Football Pitches in Castlemilk: an area of Glasgow that has produced more than its fair share of talent for the Scottish (and Irish) national teams, yet has strangely never had a football club of its own of any stature. While it remains early days, the initial experience seems to have been a positive one, and there have been other similar transfers elsewhere. 

Yet while the Scottish Government and Councils like Glasgow have community asset transfer policies in place, the idea has suffered from a combination of poor recognition of the model and its benefits, along with the residual hostility to the idea of these asset transfers on the basis that they are a front for cuts. 

To be clear, this is not a manifesto for selling off public assets, especially those which are vital for the improvement of our nation’s public health. It is instead a plea not to accept the binary of class-based sporting apartheid that sees some dilettantes practice their sport in well-heeled surroundings while the majority scrape by with under-funded yet expensive facilities that deter mass participation. Keeping facilities in public ownership, while giving communities the power to run them needs to be a subject for wider discussion. 

The SFA are obviously the other laggards with respect to this: seemingly content to tinker round the edges of the elite levels of the game while being either unwilling or unable to articulate another model for the way playing and learning the game could be experienced by all, for leveraging the overwhelming popularity of the game into something that could improve society and our communities.

And so this legacy of municipal paternalism lingers, and permeates so many aspects of Scottish life that we may never quite get rid. But that doesn’t mean to say we should accept it, especially when we have the means, and the public health benefits are so obvious. 

So instead of wondering why Croatia and Uruguay can get to World Cup semi finals, and Scotland can’t, let’s change the conversation: who said politics and football don’t mix? 

Comments (22)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    Problem is that our kids no longer routinely play football in the streets and open spaces. Without that we are fishing in a very small pool.

  2. Stan+Reeves says:

    Cogent ! The Labour Party long ago distanced it’s self from promoting voluntary associations and community development, which is what football is crying out for. A youth team I know of went on tour to Catalonia and didn’t win one game because the Catalan bairns all played in voluntary academies!
    We forget that until the 1980s it was voluntary leadership from schools football that supplied much talent. Teachers contracts changed and school football collapsed. Voluntary associations are the bedrock of civil society. As a community development worker in the 1970s I was involved in setting up a youth-football club in a big scheme. More of that. Government needs to collect and redistribute wealth though taxation to kick start new voluntary organisations.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Perhaps the growth of interest in women’s football might begin to change things.

    The media, of course, are largely pro-Rangers, but feel they have to give some attention to Celtic, if only for readers and viewers. The clubs are becoming more community oriented and many of the clubs below the Premiership do a fair bit of community work and, many acted very well during the Covid lockdown.

    If you go along Anniesland Road west from Anniesland Cross, you will see the lavish facilities on the south side belonging to the High School of Glasgow and Kelvinside Academy and, on the north suide the single astro pitch at Knightswood Secondary School. At the ‘boardroom and finance level of sport in Scotland, social class is still a dominating factor.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Alasdair Macdonald, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes, and consequences, is concerned about (among other things) self-exclusion of women and girls from activities that do not have separate-sex facilities:
      The direction of travel of the SNP-Green Scottish government seems to be in conflict with making women’s and girl’s football in Scotland a safe and appealing destination. I recognize that this is not entirely straightforward as a policy decision, accommodations for various categories are required, exceptions are often made for sport, and research is ongoing; but what some people say they want would, in all probability, be catastrophic for the sport here. Maybe in a future society (if we survive), one day things will be different. Sport is already less healthy (with elitism, commercialism, unsustainable practices, abuses of the person, pharmacological arms races, star system, commoditisation of players etc.) than it could be. But playing football with one’s peer group is its bright side, as the article attests, and not something we should jeopardise lightly.

  4. ALEX HOLMES says:

    Why can’t Scotland get to the WC semi finals?! Lol, first of all, we first have to qualify – something we’ve been unable to achieve since WC1998. Secondly, in our 8 qualifications, we have been unable to progress from first round. In our 8 WCs wh have one of the worst WC Finals records of W4 D7 L12 with a GD of -16. I write this with great sadness, and as someone born in 1940, actually thought we would win the WC one day! My optimism spurred by quality of great players in 1960s – tho’ we twice failed to qualify – and then our best undefeated effort in 1974. So if we do qualify for WC2026, this 82+ year old’s hope is that we can at least emulate wee neighbours NI, ROI and Wales record of progressing beyond 1st. round.

    1. JP58 says:

      I barely remember 60’s but we also had a large number of very good players plying their trade in English and Scottish leagues in 70’s & 80’s including at least one truly world class player in Kenny Dalglish.
      The game has changed dramatically since the 80’s and we seem to have a much smaller pool of players now partly due to reduced number of players in England & Scotland as more overseas players ply trade here. In England they are able to afford the very top quality overseas players while retaining sufficient English players which will benefit their development. In Scotland many (not all) overseas players are journeymen who while decent players are potentially blocking local talent development. Scottish players also rarely go out with UK – probably more to do with language and narrow horizons.
      I have no doubt that all the issues raised in this article especially the teachers issue also from 80’s are significant factors.
      Lastly we have expectation among players- do Scotland’s players have a real belief that they can qualify as we have now failed over so many years – witness the celebrations (excessive in my opinion) to celebrating via back door qualification and penalties to last European Championships and insipid performances except when up against England. Similarly Scotland were on a good run in WC qualifiers and then like rabbit in headlights against Ukraine who were good but Wales managed to beat them.

  5. Stewart Bremner says:

    I can’t help but think there may be a connection to Scotland having the worst local democracy in Europe.

    1. dave. says:

      You are 100% correct Stewart. Once we are independent we can afford to keep our good players in Scotland and attract players from all over the world which will increase our level of skills in our leagues.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        In your dreams.
        Arguably the last Scottish player who would have got into an England X11 was Gary Mcallister, that’s 30 years ago!
        Dennis Law, Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Grahame Souness, Joe Jordan (I could go on) all played for Scotland long before we had our own Parliament.

        1. Stan Reeves says:

          Right enough, England would have needed 12 players to beat the French!

        2. JP58 says:

          While I don’t disagree that Scotland is not producing as many top quality players in 60’s, 70’s & 80’s I believe Andy Robertson is pretty widely regarded as one of the best left backs in Europe & certainly the best in UK.
          I would also contend that based on current international form that Craig Gordon is as good as any other goalkeeper in UK.

          1. dave. says:

            It still goes back to money, unfortunately. When a young talented player comes up and plays for Hibs or Partick Thistle or any other team they are immediately gobbled up by one of the two wealthy Celtic or Rangers teams but then they just sit on the bench and never get developed. The reason of course is to keep these two teams on top of the league with their cheaply paid almost over-the-hill foreign players resulting in a higher bottom-line profit for the owners of Rangers and Celtic. There are a few exceptions of course such as McGinn, Robertson and others but they mostly play in the English leagues. Once we are independent our billions of pounds will stay here for the benefit of all Scottish endeavors. It is notable that Rangers still have the Union Jack colours and have the Orange Order fans who are against independence.

        3. dave. says:

          If the players you mentioned John played before we Scots had a parliament, Well that is quite an achievement. They must have played before 1707 and only retired within the last 50 years. No wonder our team is not winning. However, these players must be very tired after playing for over 300 years. I remember a forward line of Smith, Johnson, Reilly, Turnbull and Ormond. Fantastic players. Who did they play for again?

        4. dave. says:

          You say you could go on…Please do.

      2. dave. says:

        I will mention that our great coaches leave regularly to earn more money and they are the best. Ironically they get paid huge salaries in England from Scottish taxes and revenues in the billions of pounds that England collects. Fergie, the greatest football coach ever. Just look at Man United after Alex left.

        1. SleepingDog says:

          @dave, this is all a bit mercenary, and after all Croatia and Morocco got to the semi-finals this year. Perhaps the team with the biggest spending power, USA, went out in the group stages. Some people would say, the more money in football, the more corrupt and elitist it gets, the fewer worthy role models it provided to youngsters, and the less value it provides overall. I think the article is about how we measure the value of football (including health). Perhaps, as Gabriel Kuhn writes, football gives most value in opposition to the State. The University of Edinburgh runs courses including a free online one on the theme Football: More than a Game, where more extensive discussions can be had.

          1. dave. says:

            Yes SleepingDog the American team did go out. It should be remembered that Americans’ passions are what they call ‘football’ and basketball. We are talking about billions of American dollars paid to the players. The American/Canadian leagues have nowhere near that kind of money. but they also import players from all over the world, granted most are past their prime. The English leagues are able to pay huge salaries to players and coaches giving their leagues a huge high quality of football. Scotland can’t afford anywhere near that with the pathetic, paltry Barnett formula money we get from England which impacts all our economical endeavors. Have we ever seen a Messi, Ronaldo or Mordic’ play for a Scottish team? We could hardly pay for their hotel rooms. The same goes for coaching. There is also the psychological condition to contend with as 50% +- of our population still believes that we are inferior to the English. Also the continual hate marches by the Orange Order against fellow Scots who are Catholic and allowed by the Sturgeon Gov’t. Those psychological conditions play a part in every aspect of our lives, football included.

  6. Joe Murray says:

    You mentioned a couple of times Uruguay reaching the World Cup semi-finals. Uruguay has actually won the world Cup twice.
    Scotland has ceased to produce footballers of of any great quality. Even when we did we produced too few and never truly valued the game at the grassroots level the way other countries do. The SFA is a joke.

  7. Stevie Gallachet says:

    The nearest public pitch near me has two fences around it one with razor wire on top!! It’s obvious in scotland we need more indoor facilities ( like Toryglen) but are affordable. I noticed you never mentioned junior football and it’s local roots…especially in Scotland.

  8. gavinochiltree says:

    The obvious solution would be a minimum of Scotland-eligible players in Scottish teams—say 6 outfield players. That won’t happen as Rangers and Celtic can veto any such proposal.
    It would actually benefit both big clubs if they could produce good young players, play them then sell on, but they prefer freebies and low cost foreigners. So are guaranteed to fail against richer clubs as talent costs money, while development costs so much less.

  9. Justin Kenrick says:

    Great summary of a situation that reflects the abandonment of community.

    Maybe some folk replying have responded to the article’s title (and so responded within the paradigm) rather than read your challenge to a paradigm that impoverishes us all.

  10. Ged O'Brien says:

    Access to sport and culture is determined by cost. The minute you impose a charge on something: club membership, kits, transport to games, medical facilities, pitch hire – you immediately cut out a large swathe of the population. Add that to the lack of facilities near to where children live and it is no surprise to see such low participation rates. Women’s football is significant because it started from the lowest possible base: of effectively having been banned. Somewhere in the Scottish Parliament archives is my 9,000 word study on how football should be run. I doubt if it says anything different to many others. The core of success is starting with every child, who so desires, to play the game, being given access. Find an elite player from hundreds of thousands is much easier than finding one from thousands.

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