Next Wednesday, on the 10th of June, Scotland’s football supporters will celebrate a rather disappointing anniversary. The arrival of June marks 21 years since Scotland opened the 1998 World Cup in France with a 2-1 loss to eventual runners-up Brazil. On the face of it this is an unremarkable anniversary. If we were to celebrate every spectacular historical disappointment that we’ve ever had on the world stage, then the Tartan Army would be permanently puffed out from blowing up the ‘5-1 USA’ and ‘4-0 Norway’ balloons. No, this anniversary is to be marked for a far more lasting legacy than just a simple whooping on behalf of some of the world’s most average sides.
The ‘98 World Cup campaign is to be marked not only for its disappointing results, amongst them a draw with Norway and a famous 3-0 loss to the footballing powerhouse that is Morocco – but for the fact that this was the last time that Scotland’s Mens team appeared at a major tournament. Since then the Scotland team, and those brave enough to support them in their endeavours, have endured ten different qualification campaigns – each of them ending in failure to reach the final tournament.
I was born barely two weeks before the underwhelming 1998 campaign came to its disappointing conclusion, meaning that those of my generation have been deprived of our fair share of national team success since birth. To some of the the more seasoned members of the Tartan Army, this may seem a somewhat ridiculous complaint. The last 21 years have been a disappointing slog for everyone involved, not just the young supporters amongst our ranks – but for Scotland’s young supporters, the lack of footballing success has the real potential to kill any interest in the national team at all. My generation is slowly becoming more apathetic towards the national team – and recent results have only served to exacerbate that fact.
As sad as it is when it comes to the national team, our generation have very little to hold up as reasons to support our country. Aside from a handful of beautiful goals in recent years, young fans have to trawl through the performances of a generation of Scotland players who have long hung up their boots for any real success on the world stage. Nowadays we have no real astounding results to look forward to; due to the underlying reality of Scotland’s perennial failure to qualify for any tournament for the entirety of our lives. No matter the incredible footballing moments or miraculous results Scotland are able to pull out of the bag, everything inevitably seems to end in failure to qualify and disappointment.
The closest that our generation have to Archie Gemmill’s stunning goal against the Netherlands at Argentina ’78 would be James McFadden’s strike against France in the Parc des Princes; an incredible goal that is rightly held up as one of the greatest in the country’s history. However, as magnificent as it was, the end result of that campaign was failure to qualify for Euro 2008 – despite having beaten France home and away. Some of the most prevailing memories of recent ‘successes’ are underpinned by campaigns exactly like this. Perhaps the most famous example would be Leigh Griffiths’ pair of stellar free kicks against England at Hampden in 2017. Getting one, or even two, over the Auld Enemy was enough to send the entire country into pandemonium for a short while (and rightly so), but again this all has to be considered through the lens of the 93rd minute equaliser that Scotland conceded minutes later – and the eventual failure to qualify in the group, placing behind Slovakia.
So what’s the issue? Has Europe just moved ahead of us in terms of footballing ability? Is it that, as former Scotland manager Gordon Strachan postulated, we’re just genetically behind our European neighbours? Or are we just too small a country to compete on the world stage?
As concerns the latter, there seem to be more chances than ever before for small countries to compete. Since Scotland’s ungraceful exit from our last appearance on the world stage in 1998 a whole host of small countries have been represented at the Euros. Countries with less than half of our population such as Latvia, Northern Ireland, and Albania have all qualified for the European Championships through the traditional qualification route. With the introduction of the Nations League in 2018 it is becoming even easier for smaller countries to find success in the qualification campaign. One of Kosovo, Belarus, Macedonia and Georgia will qualify for Euro 2020 through this new route, so the narrative that Scotland simply doesn’t have the population to compete just doesn’t seem to stand up.
Aside from the Men’s A team, Scotland have been performing extremely well on the international stage. The Scottish Women’s National Team have qualified for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, under the guidance of the brilliant Shelley Kerr. The success of the Women’s team is well documented, and can serve as a fantastic inspiration for the Men’s A squad. Only just a week ago Kerr’s squad put on a convincing performance against Jamaica at Hampden in front of 18,555 specators, running out 3-2 winners against the CONCACAF side. The record crowd cheering Scotland on seemed to be made up mostly of young families, which was an incredibly heartening thing to see at Hampden – not only because it shows that women’s football is on the rise, but also that the younger generation are so incredibly interested in watching a Scotland team that is performing well. At this summer’s World Cup Scotland will come up against the likes of England, Argentina, and the former World Champions of Japan, competing for places in the knockout stages – and these new young Scotland fans will be supporting them every step of the way.
In addition to the success of the Women’s team, Scotland’s U21 Men have also been experiencing great form – in part due to the excellent management of Scott Gemmill. The Under 21’s side finished in an impressive fourth place in last summer’s Toulon Tournament, beating sides like France and South Korea before being beaten by eventual champions England in the semi-finals. Successes like such as this and the success of the Women’s National Team prove that there is a bright future ahead for Scotland and the players in the Men’s A Squad if the right coaching and support is implemented.
As disheartening as the current state of the Men’s national team may seem, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Scotland still have a dedicated and fanatical base of supporters at their core, and as Steve Clarke’s first squad begins to take shape, it’s clear that Scotland has a new crop of young and talented players to take the nation forward. There’s no denying that Scottish football isn’t in the best shape it’s ever been, but there are signs that Scotland’s fortunes could be turning.
The group that we have been drawn in for the Euro 2020 qualifiers includes within its ranks some of the best and worst ranked national sides on the planet. Sides like Russia will make it difficult for Scotland home and away, but results are possible if the team selection is right and player fitness is kept up to scratch.
This campaign’s disastrous opening match in Kazakhstan left a bad taste in the mouths of Scotland fans across the globe and, combined with the following Sunday’s more than lacklustre win over San Marino, it was enough to cost Alex McLeish his job. If the level of form seen under McLeish is to continue into Steve Clarke’s tenure then it’s certain that Scotland will fail to qualify through the group once again – however it won’t be all doom and gloom. If Scotland don’t make the grade, failure to qualify through the traditional route will be extremely disappointing for the Tartan Army – but it won’t be the end of the road for Scotland’s Euro dream.
This time, unlike any other campaign in the past, Scotland have a second chance at qualification – even if the traditional route ends up a complete disaster. Last year’s Nations League saw an uninspiring Scotland side top the group ahead of Israel and Albania, and secure a position in the Euro qualifying playoffs in March 2020. This means that whatever the outcome of the Euro Qualifiers, if Scotland fail to gain a place at the final tournament, we can still make the Euros after qualifying ahead of Norway, Serbia, and Finland in the playoffs. These are by no means easy teams to beat – Serbia especially will prove a real test for Steve Clarke’s men if the two teams come up against each other – but all three of Scotland’s opponents are ranked similarly in FIFA’s world rankings, so it should be more of a balanced contest than the Euro qualifying group.
This could be the qualification campaign that changes my generation’s (and the nation as a whole’s) attitudes towards the national team for good. Qualification, either through the European Qualifiers, or through the Nations League, would reset the clock on the looming legacy of failure that hangs over the national team, and dissuades Scotland supporters from trekking down to Kings Park on a wet Thursday night. It would provide a clear memory in the minds of my generation that Scotland are in fact one of world football’s key players – just as we always have been. Having never seen Scotland competing in an international tournament, Scotland’s young fans would be invigorated by their team’s long awaited success, and support for the National team would undoubtedly increase – and who knows, maybe that newfound energy can spur Scotland on to a run in the final tournament as well!
With Hampden hosting both group stage and round of 16 games during the final tournament, it would provide my generation (and the rest of the Tartan Army) with lasting memories of Scotland’s success – and would put Scotland firmly back on the map as a footballing power once again. As far as I can see it, Scotland now have the best chance of qualifying for a major tournament that we’ve had in a generation – and I for one cannot wait for it. The Euros are crying out for the return of the Tartan Army, and the Tartan Army are crying back.
Ryan HarleyListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast