Scotland's failure to qualify for an international tournament in the last 14 years is not a national embarrassment. Nonetheless, the Scottish team, continually ridiculed, will find it difficulty to qualify for the World Cup. Euro qualification will become easier with the increased size of that tournament, but the World Cup may not be seen by the Tartan Army for many years. That realisation should not necessarily be greeted with disappointment. Instead, a greater recognition of some of Scotland's difficulties, and appreciation of some its successes is needed.
The days when Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen and Dundee United were winning European silverware, when Daglish was the 'King of the Kop', when Butcher and Gascoigne would venture north to play their club football, are long gone. Consequently, a generation south of the border has grown up understanding that the Scottish football is not just inferior, but of a standard akin to League 1. Rather than vehemently objecting to this tag, Scotland has embraced it. 'Crisis in our national game' is a headline that appears far too often. Hence, the requirement for a semblance of perspective.
Scotland has produced a squad that has a great deal of strength in depth, but there are very few, if any outstanding players. In some ways, it is the opposite of a Wales squad that is built around four exceptional players in Bale, Bellamy, Ramsey and Allen, but that lacks any real talent beyond this. This is the key problem. Who would you proclaim as Scotland's star player? There are many that are good, but I would venture that if you asked 11 fans this question, you could get as many as 7 players. The infrequency of the international calendar harms Scotland, whose strength is in quantity not quality.
It is not as if Scottish players do not have value. We have seen Scottish players with fees of £8 million (Craig Gordon, Jordan Rhodes), £9 million (Alan Hutton), £10 million (Charlie Adam) and £14 million (Steven Fletcher). The latter is a particularly irksome matter. Scotland should be lining up for their first qualifying game with a rather potent strike-force of Fletcher and Rhodes. I understand why Craig Levein wants to stick to his guns on the Fletcher matter. He failed to show exemplary commitment to the national team under his management. However, the moral high ground on the matter is completely thrown out of the window when you see Levein's treatment of McGregor and Ferguson's antics. Everyone deserves a second chance, and when you are small country with a slightly above average team, exceptions need to be made for players of that quality. Levein continuing to antagonise the matter by questioning Fletcher's £14 million valuation is both childish and counter-intuitive. He is, of course, right, the value was ludicrous. Yet his job as coach is to foster the national game, and talking down the value of Scottish players completely contrasts that aim.
Levein's attitude to Fletcher is not solely responsible for Scotland's current position. There is also the contentious issue of Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy. Two of the most talented players that Scotland have produced, who ultimately decided to pursue their international careers elsewhere. Whilst having an affinity to Scotland and Celtic, but not Ireland, this is a precarious point for me to discuss. From my understanding, the decision these players made was neither inevitable nor immutable, but stemmed from their feeling of greater backing from the Irish authorities in their early development. The Scottish authorities cannot afford to alienate precocious young talents in this way. The scouting system needs to be reinforced to ensure that these talents do not slip away and rules forbidding good players to play for their school teams should be abolished. That in itself will not prevent further players from slipping through the net, but it will help to ensure that these players do not feel so undervalued.
However, there is a growing mass of young talent emerging from Scotland. Forrest, Russell, McGeough, Mackay-Steven, Ness, Watt, and Feruz, to name but a few, are very promising young players. Moreover, the Rangers situation should help to push through younger players. This is not because a lack of finance will 'finally' push other Scottish clubs to look to their academies. Tight finances of the previous decade have dictated that policy. However, the signing ban will place an extra emphasis on Rangers to produce younger players. An opportunity that many of them should thrive upon.
There is every chance that Scotland may at some point, produce a new 'golden generation'. Belgium, a small country also used to living in the shadow of its footballing neighbour, looks on the precipice of a magnificent era; led by Hazard, Fellaini, Witsel and co. Yet such generations will be less and less successful with the globalisation and secession of football. Those two terms are not normally associated, so let me elaborate.
Developing countries are thriving on the sport, mostly due to its low cost of participation at the grass roots level. Football also offers a chance for status. If a commonwealth country, can achieve a victory against England, that is a point of intense national pride. Both of these factors mean that the quality and investment in the international game will continue to increase. Which in turn will lead to higher standards with which Scotland has to survive in.The spate of secessions in Europe also harms Scotland. Where there was one strong team in the Former Yugoslavia, a multitude of quite strong teams exist, all of whom are able to take points away. The same process has happened in the Soviet Union. With only 32 teams in the World Cup, Scotland's relative chances of qualification will be again harmed. This potent combination is the biggest obstacle for the Scottish game rising to reclaim former glories.
Scottish football is not lurching from crisis to crisis. However, footballing successes are relative, and Scotland is becoming victim to this footballing fact. Nonetheless, by understanding the difficulties that the country has to overcome, we can take greater pride in the smaller successes. That might be a hard pill to swallow, but it is certainly better then the perpatual misery that comes from failing to achieve an unattainable standard.
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