19/12/2012 05:59 GMT | Updated 17/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Scottish Football: Where Did It All Go Wrong?

By Rab MacWilliam author of The Greatest: Scotland's Best 11

There was a time - and it now feels about as long ago as Bannockburn - when Scotland was regarded as the breeding ground for some of the world's finest footballers.

Denis Law, Jim Baxter, Kenny Dalglish, Billy Bremner, Dave Mackay: these and a few others paraded the Scottish saltire just as proudly as the Brazilians shimmied their samba, the Germans raised their foaming steins of lager and the Italian Azurri strutted their way to World Cup Finals.

Indeed Scotland - a small nation of five million souls - qualified for the World Cup final stages in two-thirds of the tournaments which they entered between their first appearance in 1954 and their last appearance in 1998. This is quite remarkable, considering that virtually every country on the planet was invited to join the tournament, and that the majority of these countries are significantly larger in every respect than is Scotland.

Five of these appearances, however, occurred consecutively between 1974 and 1990. Since then, Scotland have qualified only once (1990) in the last five tournaments and are certainties to miss out on Brazil in 2014. How can this have happened? How can the nation which virtually invented the game in the 19th century - and certainly discovered the arts of passing, heading and crossing - now be languishing in 70th place in the current FIFA rankings, sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Guinea?

Certainly the players who delighted spectators with their skill and courage between the mid-1970s and early 1990s were a conjunction of talents which may occur infrequently in footballing nations. For instance, where today are Hungary and Austria who, in the first half of the 20th century, were the dazzling stars of the international game?

But the malaise is deeper than mere coincidence. Scottish footballers were from the 1960s until the 1980s some of the most exalted footballers in the English game. Where are they now? They have been replaced by other foreign players, now representing the majority, who ply their trade in the English Premiership with clubs able to pay the vast transfer fees and wages demanded by the superstars. So who needs Scottish players? They're hardly visible in England, and the skills they may have picked up in England they now have to learn at teams like Dunfermline or St Mirren (no offence, boys).

The days of footballers acting as role models for younger kids have also disappeared. Recent Scottish footballing failure has led today's kids instead to emulate musicians and get-rich-quick merchants, and play mindless games on the internet. The relaxation of the primacy of football at school level might also be a factor. And the recent dominance of Celtic (and, until recently, Rangers) has been due mainly to foreign players. The Old Firm's policy of buying the best players from smaller clubs remains, but these gifted young men often find themselves now in the reserves, learning nothing.

So until all this changes, or Scotland again start winning a few games of football, the situation will worsen. Where are you now, Denis Law, when we need you?

Rab MacWilliam is author of The Greatest: Scotland's Best 11 published by Endeavour Press.