The opening games of recent World Cups, whilst failing to pull up any proverbial trees, have at times gifted the footballing world with moments of sheer joy. From South African Siphiwe Tshabalala’s thunderbolt and jubilant celebration against Mexico in 2010, to the Senegalese team dancing in unison around the jersey of goal scorer Papa Bouba Diop in 2002, the first match at football’s showpiece event has often seen the underdog strut their stuff on the biggest stage of all.
June 10, 1998 was not too dissimilar. A packed house of 80,000 buoyant spectators were in situ in the sun-drenched Stade de France to watch a Brazil side who were reigning world champions and boasted, according to FIFA, the world’s two best players in Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos. Their opponents that day in the opening match of the 1998 World Cup were Craig Brown’s Scotland side, who, alongside Colin Hendry and Paul Lambert, had the likes of Tom Boyd, Gordon Durie and Darren Jackson in their ranks.
Adorned in their iconic yellow jerseys, Brazil started the game strongly, with Rivaldo’s masterful left foot orchestrating the early proceedings. Undeterred by going a goal down after just five minutes, Scotland persevered against the penetrating runs of Bebeto and the scintillating skills of O Fenômeno, and had their efforts rewarded towards the end of the first half when they were awarded a penalty.
A massive moment in the match that called for a cool head, midfielder John Collins stepped up and confidently slotted the spot-kick past the outstretched right hand of experienced goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel. Wheeling away towards the ecstatic Tartan Army with his teammates in tow, Collins himself celebrated with a little jig. Scotland had deservedly equalised against the mighty Brazil, and the underdogs were threatening to steal the show.
Close but no cigar
Twenty years have passed since the Scottish men’s national football team last graced a major tournament. Collins’ goal against Brazil in Saint-Denis sparked scenes of celebration from Aberdeen to Ayr, however that feeling of elation was to be short-lived. Despite going on to lose 2-1 to eventual finalists Brazil, Brown’s side did manage a respectable 1-1 draw against Norway in Bordeaux, but were comprehensively blown away by Morocco in Saint-Étienne, losing 3-0 and having midfielder Craig Burley sent off in the process. In a tournament that showed glimpses of hope, Scotland ultimately failed to get past the first stage of a World Cup for a record eighth time.
In the various World Cup and European Championship qualifying campaigns that have followed since, Scotland have shown plenty of character but have eventually come up short in crucial games. From the agonising Euro 2000 qualifying playoff defeat to bitter rivals England, where a 1-0 win at Wembley was still not enough to go through, to being outclassed in a 6-0 defeat to the Netherlands in the second leg of their Euro 2004 qualifying play-off, Scotland have fallen time after time at the final hurdle.
There have been highlights, including reaching a highest ever FIFA world ranking of 13th place after defeating France home and away in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, but managers including Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, George Burley and Craig Levein have all tried and ultimately failed to replicate the glory days of the late 20th century, a period of time that saw Scotland qualify for five successive World Cups between 1974 and 1990.
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Scotland’s qualifying troubles came to a head in late 2015 when Gordon Strachan’s side became the only home nation not to qualify for Euro 2016. With the Republic of Ireland also managing to progress to the tournament in France following a playoff win against Bosnia and Herzegovina, it meant Scottish fans had to endure a summer of watching their nearest geographical rivals go up against Europe’s best teams.
The actual qualifying campaign saw Scotland defeat the Irish 1-0 at Celtic Park thanks to a well-taken goal from Shaun Maloney, but an inability to secure a win against either Germany or Poland, coupled with a poor away defeat to Georgia, meant the Tartan Army would once again be watching a major tournament on their television screens at home.
Problems that need solving
When analysing why Scotland have failed to produce a quality international team for the best part of 20 years, a few key factors stand out. Firstly, the lack of success enjoyed by the nation’s underage teams means that young players who finally graduate into the senior setup do so without having tested themselves at the highest level.
Scotland’s under-21 side have failed to qualify for a major tournament since 1996, whilst the under-20 side haven’t featured at the age group’s biennial World Cup since 2007. As well as creating a worrying sense of inevitability within the Scottish Football Association that the underperformance of the youth teams is having a negative impact on the senior side, individual players are also missing out on the experience of playing against their most talented peers on a regular basis.
When young Scottish players have travelled overseas in search of more game time or a higher level of competition, they have often failed to make the grade. When Ryan Gauld joined Portuguese side Sporting in the summer of 2014, he was coming off the back of an impressive season with Dundee United, one which saw him feature in the final of the Scottish Cup. Big things were expected of the midfielder, however four years and a couple of loan spells later, he still hasn’t established himself in Sporting’s first team or the national team Scottish national.
Another player who tried his hand abroad was winger Oliver Burke, who joined German side RB Leipzig in the summer of 2016 for £13m, a record-breaking fee for a Scottish player at the time. However, after just one season in the Bundesliga playing alongside teammates such as Timo Werner, Yussuf Poulsen and Naby Keïta, Burke found himself back in the United Kingdom, joining West Bromwich Albion for another record-breaking fee for a Scot said to be in the region of £15m.
Despite helping Leipzig qualify for the Champions League in their very first season in Germany’s top flight, Burke, citing a lack of game time, decided to return to England, and was subsequently part of the West Brom squad that suffered relegation from the Premier League during the 2017/18 campaign.
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The coaching infrastructure in Scotland has also come under intense scrutiny in recent years. A nation renowned for producing brilliant managers such as Jock Stein, Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson, the recent crop of coaches haven’t proved nearly as successful, with the harsh reality being that the 2017/18 Premier League season was the first ever season in the competition’s 25-year history to not have a Scottish manager at the helm of a club.
Former Rangers and Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish is currently enjoying his second stint as Scotland boss, but his contentious decision to leave the national set-up in 2007 to take up a job in the Premier League still lives in the memories of some fans and has not helped to ease the sense of tension that surrounds Hampden Park.
Onwards and upwards
Despite what the weather forecasts might often say, it is not all doom and gloom in Scotland; in fact, things look to be taking a turn for the better for the national side, both on and off the pitch. On it, a number of key players are having a big impact at their respective clubs, including Kieran Tierney, Ryan Fraser and Callum McGregor, while John McGinn’s consistent performances for Hibernian have seen him secure a recent move to Aston Villa.
In May 2018, former Queen’s Park and Dundee United defender Andrew Robertson became the first Scottish player to play in a Champions League final in 21 years when he lined out at left-back for Liverpool against Spanish giants Real Madrid. The game time being given to towering midfielder Scott McTominay at Manchester United is yet another example of a Scottish talent plying his trade at one of Europe’s biggest clubs.
The re-emergence of Rangers in the Scottish Premiership is another cause of optimism for the national side. Now under the tutelage of former Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard, the Gers are trying to overcome their previous financial difficulties and break the hold their Glaswegian rivals Celtic have had on the title for the past seven years. Gerrard has given game time to Scottish players like Ryan Jack and Ross McCrorie, and the team’s drive to make up for lost time should lead to a more competitive domestic season.
The establishment of the UEFA Nations League also offers hope to the Scottish national side. A new competition for the 2018/19 season, this tournament will attempt to replace the often tedious mid-season international friendlies with competitive matches between teams of similar stature.
For the inaugural season, Scotland have been placed into the third tier, and will face Albania and Israel in home and away ties. As well as offering McLeish’s side with another way of qualifying for Euro 2020, the matches in the Nations League will help to introduce more players to competitive international football. Incidentally, Hampden Park is scheduled to host four matches during Euro 2020, a fact that will surely serve as an added qualifying incentive for the Scottish team.
For the Tartan Army, a group of supporters whose level of commitment and camaraderie has seen them pick up many goodwill awards, an upturn in fortunes may soon be on the horizon. With a talented squad of relatively young players, a manager out to prove a point, and an intriguing upcoming competitive fixture list, fans will be hoping that come 2020, they will be able to avoid Travis’s clichéd soundtrack Why Does it Always Rain on Me, and, just like John Collins in June 1998, do a celebratory dance instead to Simple Minds’ Alive and Kicking.
By Johnny Byrnes @JohnnyByrnes007