Why the Scotland National Team Fails

I realise this is maybe a bit of a downer with two even more vital than the time before qualifiers on the way, but having thought about this today, I felt the need to get this into blog form.

To my mind, there are a number of reasons why the Scotland national football team fails to do very much these days (including the sheer inability to qualify for a major international tournament). Some of these are inherent to Scotland and we can do nothing about them; some of these are so intrinsically stamped on the country’s footballing and national culture that they will take decades to shift; and some are points that the SFA, the SPL, the manager and the players could put in place without too much bother.

So here are what I think are the reasons. Let me know if you agree or disagree.

Scotland

There’s not been too much to shout about at this joint recently from a Scotland perspective.

1. Scotland’s size

Now this, unless we try some mentalist colonisation in Central America again, is something that can’t really be helped. Scotland is a reasonable-sized country (the Highland area itself is bigger than Belgium). What it lacks is people. There are only 5 million of us – finding 11 top drawer footballers is easier for say, Brazil (190 million), Spain (47 million) or indeed our neighbours across the border, England (53 million). Where this argument perhaps falls down is that two of the last 16 World Cup semi-finalists (that’s Uruguay in 2010 and Croatia in 1998) have populations lower than that of Scotland. Therefore population is undoubtedly a factor, but it can’t be an excuse for failure.

2. Player choices

The path of the Scottish footballer in the modern era is a fairly well-trodden one. Start out at a provincial side (it seems to be either Hibernian or Aberdeen these days for the most talented ones), move to (pre-liquidation) Rangers or Celtic after being hyped to the heavens or move to an English club of some description, then stagnate. It has been a constant source of frustration for me that our players (and more likely, their agents) never seem to look beyond a trip to Glasgow or  the lower reaches of the Premier League. Particularly when one looks to the two most recent Europe-class players in the Scotland side (John Collins, and to a lesser extent Paul Lambert), both used their time abroad to develop their game at a far greater rate than they would have here or in England. They then used those experiences to the benefit of club and country on their return to the UK.

And there is so much Europe out there. A Scottish footballer could learn and develop his craft in Portugal, or Belgium, or Greece, or Ukraine, never mind the bigger nations. Allan McGregor has at least taken an interesting step forward with his move to Besiktas (though one wonders if he will find the nightlife in Istanbul quite as rewarding as he did in Glasgow) – it would be fantastic if more of his international team-mates would follow suit.

3. Complacency

This in part relates to my point ab0ve. When a Scottish footballer (and let’s take Kenny Miller as a case in point here) makes the big move to Rangers (until this year) or Celtic, in my view his fight and his willingness to consistently better himself disappears. Complacency sets in. To my mind there is no real challenge for a Scotland-level player in playing Caley Thistle, Hibs and Aberdeen week in, week out, winning 80% of the matches and strolling to a league title which in the grand scheme of things means very little. A mind that this is all pretty easy sets in, to the point where, when either club or country do have to travel to the big (or even mediocre) guns of Europe, invariably things go horribly wrong.

This may be less true now than it was 5 or 10 years ago with more of the Scotland squad now plying their trade in England. It may be, however, that that complacency now works the other way. It would seem that from our current manager’s perspective (see more below) that if a player finds himself in the squad (never mind playing regularly) of an English Premier League side, they appear to automatically qualify for the Scotland squad.  Again, no incentive to approve, and no credible agent is likely to recommend a pay cut to move on unless it’s absolutely necessary.

4. Alcohol

Scotland, as we all know, has a more deep and meaningful relationship with alcohol than most countries. It is a rite (and indeed a right) of passage to start drinking around the 14/15/16 mark (perhaps even earlier) and thus get thoroughly trollied at least once a week through one’s teenage years and early 20s. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that this is something that never quite leaves our footballers.

There have been several reports in the last few years of Scottish footballers getting into fights in nightclubs when they should probably be tucked up in bed (Derek Riordan seems to be a particular exponent of this trend), and I myself have seen Caley Thistle and Ross County players living it up in Inverness on various nights out. There was also of course the wonderful “Boozegate” , in which the Scotland national side’s own players (the aforementioned Mr McGregor included) managed to live up to the stereotype. Arsene Wenger proved that cutting the relationship for English footballers between themselves and alcohol worked a treat; it’s about time all of Scotland’s footballers drifted into the late 1990s and learned the same.

5. Lack of infrastructure

France has Clairefontaine. England has the newly opened (and long overdue) St George’s Park, the Netherlands has the KNVB Academy. Scotland has… an occasional trip to Loch Lomond. Yes, Celtic and Rangers now have academies at Lennoxtown and Murray Park respectively, Hearts have Riccarton and the Highland Football Academy in dear old Dingwall provides decent facilities in the north. But what this country lacks, and will continue to lack with the current SFA management in place, is a national centre such as the one in France in particular.

Largs is, though may not continue to be, a centre of coaching excellence (Mourinho and Lippi, among others, have been through there) which must be used to its fullest. Build a St Andrew’s Park (as its name will inevitably be) in Falkirk or Stirling or somewhere else in the Central Belt and we might just be able to provide an environment for all young Scottish players to thrive in.

6. The current regime

I do feel the final piece of this puzzle is, unfortunately for him, the removal of Craig Levein from the Scotland job. He has managed competitive wins against 2 sides in his time in charge (Liechtenstein and Lithuania), and indeed is yet to win a competitive Scotland match by more than one goal. 4-6-0 against the Czech Republic was the start; refusing to acknowledge it was a terrible idea (and getting aggressive with the press when they said otherwise) made it all the worse.

Then there was and is the Steven Fletcher saga, where arguably the form striker in the Premier League is being kept out of the Scotland side largely, it would seem, due to Levein’s pride. There comes a time in everyone’s life that compromise and being “the better person” is the best way to reach a solution to a problem. Fletcher has himself recently declared (via Twitter) that he would come back into the side if asked; Levein said no.

The current campaign has also showed Levein for what he is (a dour man and a dour tactician) in several ways. Firstly, and this may seem a silly point, but those Reaction lenses are what he’ll be remembered for. Just as it was reasonable for Steve McClaren to grab an umbrella when it was arsing down at Wembley in 2007, so too is it reasonable for Levein to account for his imperfect vision in all light conditions. The media, one suspects, will not be quite so accommodating when his inevitable resignation comes.

Secondly, the negativity first seen in that 4-6-0 match continues unabated. Serbia were there for the taking in the first match – a side low on confidence with a number of teenagers in the side would have encouraged a normal manager to at least play 2 forwards at home. Not so Levein who, out of being thrawn more than anything, left the change until the last 5 minutes (as well as Jordan Rhodes). The game against Macedonia (which was worse than the 0-0 draw against Serbia in Scotland having to come from behind) was much the same –  1 up front and no attempt to actually win the game until the dying minutes. I would much prefer if Scotland played well in either game and got beat 3-2 than dirged their way to a draw – we at least had to try to win because 2 draws were useless in any event. Not so for Mr Levein, it would seem, who remains pointlessly optimistic.

So there are my thoughts. Would welcome some of the interweb’s too.

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Tahiti – an update

Tahiti’s location on the planet Earth (from TUBS’s picture on the Tahiti Wikipedia article)

Continuing my theme of focusing on world football’s minnows, my attention turns again to the mighty Tahiti. Having featured their incredible OFC Nations Cup win this year (and thus entry into the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil) in a previous blog post, I thought an update was due on their progress.

And progress has unfortunately not been great. Two World Cup qualifiers down, two defeats. The Oceania World Cup qualifiers consist of a round robin featuring the four sides who got through to the OFC Nations Cup semi-finals: Tahiti, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.

Tahiti’s matches in the group so far have seen a 2-0 defeat away to the Solomon Islands, followed by a 4-0 defeat at home to New Caledonia (the side they beat 1-0 in the OFC Nations Cup final). Not completely hideous, you might think; given New Zealand, however, managed an 8-1 aggregate win (6-1 and 2-0) against the same two sides really does not bode well for the French Polynesians’ trip to Brazil.

At the Confederations Cup, Tahiti will end up in a group with either Brazil or Uruguay, either Spain or Italy, and one of Mexico, Japan and the winner of the Africa Cup of Nations. That will, particularly given their recent results, be an absolutely gargantuan task for such a tiny country. I really hope they can find some Brazilians or Spaniards with Tahitian ancestry between now and June 2013, otherwise they might be on the end of some seriously nasty hammerings in Brazil. Their next two qualifiers (a home and away double-header with New Zealand) will really show how bad, or otherwise, it could get.

Blue Sharks

About a year ago, my girlfriend and I enjoyed a fantastic holiday in sunny Cape Verde, an archipelago off the west coast of Africa (about 250 miles west of Senegal).  I watched their football side (on the local TV channel) perform gallantly in failing to get to the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations (which would have been their first), beating Zimbabwe at home but missing out after Liberia couldn’t do them a favour and beat Mali.

A typical Cape Verdean scene.

I have followed the Cape Verde national team (the Blue Sharks) and their fortunes since via the web and Livescore. A sluggish start to their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign has been rather eclipsed by an incredible result today in the African Cup of Nations qualifiers. The tournament is moving from even years to odd, meaning the next tournament is as early as next year in South Africa. Bearing this in mind, CAF have (very wisely) expedited the qualfiers to three rounds of 2-legged ties, with the big guns coming in for the last round.

Cape Verde received a bye in round 1, then in round 2 eased past Madagascar by 7 goals to 1 on aggregate. The final round of qualifiers started today, with Cape Verde drawn against the mighty Cameroon. Cameroon were down Samuel Eto’o (who withdrew from the squad on 27 August citing Cameroon’s set-up as “amateurish” ), but that will be no excuse for Cape Verde’s incredible 2-0 win in Praia. According to various match reports, the Blue Sharks dominated the game, with Cameroon running out of ideas fairly quickly. Cape Verde’s two goals came by way of two set pieces, with Ricardo (who plies his trade in Portugal) and Djaniny, also based in the former colonial master country, hitting the back of the net.

The return trip to Yaounde on 12 October will not be easy (with rumours of Eto’o coming back into the side for that game), but losing by a goal will still see the islanders to their first ever Africa Cup of Nations. That in itself would be quite an incredible achievement for a country with a population of less than 600,000.

I put this on my Cape Verde post last year, but thought it had to be re-posted – this is the fans’ song played on the Cape Verdean national broadcaster at half-time when they show Cape Verde matches. Certainly beats listening to Neil McCann attempt to string two sentences together:

Honours and Sport – Update

Following my post on Honours and Sport a couple of weeks ago, and my speculation on who would get what in the New Year’s Honours List as a result of peformances at the Olympics, the UK Government has come up with an interesting solution. A whole new Honours List! As you will notice in the linked article, nothing has as yet been confirmed by Whitehall, but if it’s been reported on the BBC, chances are it’s entirely kosher.

That still doesn’t take away the Main Honours Advisory Committee’s difficulty of who gets what in terms of honours. Gold medallists only? Medallists only? It also sets an interesting precedent in providing an Honours list after a major sporting event. Will this occur in 4 years time if Britain have similar (but most likely lesser given the lack of the “London effect”) success? If England win the World Cup in 2014 or 2018, will a similar separate Honours list be provided for the 23 men in the squad plus coaches? I wonder if these consequences have been thought through.

What one might also argue is that this new proposal somewhat devalues the Honours system. There is no doubt that many of those winning medals this summer, both in the Olympics and the Paralympics, deserve the extra recognition provided in joining the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. If so many are to be handed out, however, that a large percentage of the next British Olympic squad have something ending in “BE” after their name, to my mind it removes something special not only in their receiving an Honour, but in the lollipop lady who’s worked for 60 years receiving an MBE. If the Olympians can have an extra Honours List, why not lollipop ladies?

As an aside, one man who probably won’t appear on the Olympics Honours List is Sir Chris Hoy (unless there’s a peerage coming his way). He will, however, receive the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh on Sunday 16 September at the newly refurbished Assembly Rooms in George Street.

Mercenary Managers

You may have not noticed this today among the news that Oscar Pistorious was a bit annoyed about losing, and Michael Owen may or may not be on his way back to Anfield, but Sven-Göran Eriksson is once again gainfully employed, this time in Thailand (and as an aside, so is Diego Maradona as the “Honorary Sports Ambassador” for Dubai).

Sven Sven Sven, Sven-Goran Eriksson

Mr Eriksson, no doubt delighted to be in full-time employment once again. (Photo by Arvedui89 on Flickr)

Of course once, before he arrived at Lancaster Gate in 2001, Sven was a respected manager who had won titles in several countries, and had not long since helped Lazio to their first scudetto in more than 25 years. Since he left the England job in 2006, Sven has managed Manchester City, the Mexican and Ivory Coast national teams, Leicester City and been director of football at Notts County. Sven has been one of the defining factors of the excesses of English football, and football in general, over the last few years; a no doubt talented (perhaps with some ageing ideas) manager, his tendency to go to the highest bidder is matched by few in the game. It did get me thinking though, and did remind me of a few other mercenary managers, those bosses who take charge of so many different teams that it’s quite difficult to gauge exactly where their loyalties lie.

Bela Guttmann

Guttmann was perhaps the original managerial mercenary (oft-mentioned on the Football Ramble, whose profile of him is first-class), though, even more so than Eriksson, there is no doubting he had talent in abundance. Guttmann was a Hungarian, whose first managerial job came with Hakoah Vienna (the primary Jewish side in that city) in 1935. The next 38 years, which encompassed his coaching career, saw him take the helm of a football club a total of 25 times. Many of these involved taking the main job at a club more than once; indeed, Guttmann was manager of both Benfica and Porto twice.

What Guttmann lacked in decisiveness and staying power, he certainly made up for in his pioneering tactical outlook (as is wonderfully described in Jonathan Wilson’s “Inverting the Pyramid”) and ultimately, prowess in the job. He was sacked halfway through a season when Milan (with Nordahl and Liedholm in the side) were top of Serie A; he went to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay to manage (Quilmes, Sao Paulo and Penarol respectively), and in his first spell in charge of Benfica they won two successive European Cups in 1961 and 1962. Guttmann was undoubtedly a wonderful manager; he was however also liable to get into the odd argument with a board of directors. This, more than anything, may account for his interesting CV.

Jocky Scott
Scott is rather at the other end of the scale from Eriksson and Guttmann. The ultimate in lower league Scottish managers, Jocky Scott was a bit of an everyman for a while as to who a club could get in when times were desperate. Scott has had three separate spells at Dundee, dallied with management in England at Notts County (and a brief spell as caretaker manager at Plymouth Argyle), and was once co-manager (!) with Alex Smith at Aberdeen.

Most recently, he contributed to Stirling Albion’s relegation to the Scottish Second Division in 2011, followed swiftly by their relegation to the Scottish Third Division in 2012. Scott always seemed to be the man lower-end Scottish teams (though not East Fife. Yet.) turned to when they couldn’t think of anyone else; they probably ended up wishing they’d thought a bit harder.

Micky Adams

Micky Adams is another case in point for me. His name always seems to come up whenever a lower-rate managerial position is available in England. His career so far has seen him take in 10 different top jobs in a 16 year career (not far away from a Guttmann-esque level of employment turnover), and he is now in his second spell at Port Vale. His only Premier League experience thus far came with Leicester City in their most recent season in the top flight (2003-04), which was probably most famous for the arrest (and the subsequent dropping of all charges) of several players on charges of sexual assault on a team-building trip to Spain.

His career has rolled slowly down a gentle slope since, taking Sheffield United into League 1 at the end of the 2010-11 season, then drifting down to League 2 to return to Port Vale at the start of the following season. Continuing mediocrity no doubt beckons.

Dick Advocaat

Dick Advocaat is my final example and another gentleman who has been round the block somewhat. His approach is somewhat unique among this rogues’ gallery in that he has been manager of no fewer than 5 international sides, though not quite up there with Bora Milutinovic’s 9 international jobs. Advocaat has taken charge of the Netherlands (twice), Belgium, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and Russia. In doing so, he has achieved….not much.

His spells in charge of Russia and South Korea were perhaps particularly notable in that they his spells followed those of fellow countryman and fellow mercenary Guus Hiddink. Hiddink took Russia and South Korea to surprising international semi-final appearances (in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2002 respectively); Advocaat managed to take both to first round knockouts (in Euro 2012 and World Cup 2006). Dick has had some success in his career, most notably with Rangers (though in hindsight his interesting transfer policy may have ultimately played a major part in that club’s liquidation) and Zenit St Petersburg. Advocaat has now gone back to PSV (his previous spell coming after his relatively successful time in charge of the Dutch national team in the mid-1990s). No doubt he will end up with another national side at some point.

Any other examples of managerial mercenaries are gratefully received. I feel Sven is probably the best modern example of a mercenary (though Fabio Capello is starting to give him a run for his money). One might argue too that Jose Mourinho fits into the mercenary mould, although he does appear to pick and choose his jobs relatively carefully (having his undoubtedly excellent track record helps). These chaps certainly help keep the game interesting, though one wonders why some of them remain in gainful employment.