As history repeats, there’s no way back for Scotland
Tonight, UEFA Champions League football returns to the Emirates, 113 days since its last appearance at Arsenal’s home ground. On that occasion, Gunners fans held up giant placards that spelled “believe,” before seeing their team humbled by Manchester United.
This time round it will be the away fans clinging to hope with Arsenal expected to dish out the humiliation upon Celtic.
If things pan out as expected then Celtic will be another Scottish carcass on the ever-growing heap.
The first shock came last year when Lithuania’s FBK Kaunas knocked Rangers out of Europe. That trend has continued this season with Aberdeen’s recent 8-1 aggregate defeat by Sigma Olomouc, Falkirk’s elimination by Vaduz of Liechtenstein and Motherwell’s 6-1 thrashing by Steaua Bucharest.
Hearts, who finished third in the Scottish Premier League last season, then lost their first leg 4-0 away to Dinamo Zagreb on Thursday and it could have been worse.
Things have been tough at international level as well. It’s been 11 long years since Scotland last qualified for a major tournament. If national team manager George Burley fails to qualify the team for next year’s World Cup, as seems likely, it will be the sixth tournament in a row the country has been absent from.
For a nation that was one of the pioneers of the short passing game it’s a sorry state of affairs.
On Sunday there was a fascinating feature in The Observer by Glenn Gibbons that posed the question, “is there any way back for this once-great football nation?”
In the article, Gibbons spoke with Sir Alex Ferguson, who made a revelation that was startling in its honesty and accuracy.
Back when Ferguson was manager of Scottish side Aberdeen, he made the claim that “no Denis Law will ever be allowed to leave Aberdeen again.”
According to the article in The Observer, some 20 odd years later, Ferguson’s opinion has changed.
“Sadly,” the Manchester United manager says, “it’s looking less and less likely that Aberdeen will ever again even produce a Denis Law, far less let him escape.”
As is often the case, Ferguson is right. In the last 20 years the number of Scottish players in the English Premier League has dropped from 16 to 5. While the number in the second tier of English football, the Championship, has marginally increased from 24 to 26. A once proud production line is now producing an abundance of mediocrity.
Naturally there is plenty that can be done to improve the game in Scotland particularly at youth level and the Scottish FA has acknowledged the need for change.
While that would imply there’s hope on the horizon, I fear that the sad truth for followers of Scottish football is that history has already condemned the game in Scotland.
If we cast our gaze back across the annals of time we’ll see that this story has happened before starting with Uruguay.
If the English brought football to South America it was the Uruguayans who revolutionised the game on the continent. For a nation who won two of the first four World Cups, Uruguay have had little impact on the global football landscape for quite some time.
Then there’s Hungary. At Wembley in 1953 the Mighty Magyars gave the English a football lesson, defeating the home side 5-3. Hungary’s implosion at the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland is infamous and that second place finish is their last great achievement.
Both Hungary and Uruguay have had an undeniable effect on the development of modern football but there are two key threads between these countries and Scotland that’s unmistakable.
First of all, Hungary has a population of ten million, Uruguay three and a half million and Scotland five million. Simply put, all three countries don’t have a talent pool big enough to consistently and continuously punch at the highest level.
Furthermore, with football now being as much a business as anything else, economically these three countries stand little chance. The highest GDP out of the lot is Hungary with US196 billion dollars. That’s one-tenth the size of Brazil’s and a quarter the size of Australia’s.
Sadly, these economic and population factors are portent omens for football in Scotland.
What’s truly remarkable about the plight facing Scottish football is not its rapid fall from grace, but that it managed to avoid it for so long.
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