Today Scotland will learn its fate in a new UEFA competition called the Nations League.…
The year was 1989. Mo Johnston had turned down Celtic for Rangers, Milli Vanilli were pushing for the UK number one single and in Germany, a very pleased-with-himself David Hasselhoff triumphantly stood on top of the Berlin Wall as it was torn down brick-by-brick. Millions across the globe tuned in to watch, open-mouthed, as communism in Europe became consigned to history.
One of these events would have a profound impact on the Scottish national team. No, it’s not Milli Vanilli. But it also wasn’t Johnston’s last-minute change of heart. Not many would have foreseen it at the time but as European communism crumbled and broke, life was going to get considerably more difficult for Scotland.
Prior to their dissolution, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the U.S.S.R. were all European heavyweights – between them, a huge chunk of Europe’s population lived within their borders. It’s this fact that’s crucial to our understanding of the declining fortunes of our national team.
Once the three aforementioned states were dissolved, the result was no fewer than 21 new countries to contend with on the international stage, with almost all of them based in Europe (a few former U.S.S.R. countries lie in Asia). And this is the heart of the problem.
Now, when Scotland were drawn in qualifying groups for World Cups or European Championships, there weren’t just three countries to avoid. There were now 15 new countries, bloating the qualification groups without a significant increase in the number of finals spots available. And each have similar or larger populations than Scotland – not a guarantee of success in and of itself (just ask China or India), but it certainly helps in countries that are already football-daft.
More worryingly, however, was the quality of opposition that these new countries provided for Scotland. The graph below shows the FIFA world rankings (admittedly not the most precise metric but a fair generalisation of each country’s quality) of each of the new teams, and Scotland, over the last five years to indicate the calibre of each team.
As we can see, there are a few countries that are clearly better than Scotland here – Croatia, Russia (don’t be alarmed by their rankings over the last two years – they haven’t played a competitive fixture in that time) and Ukraine –amongst others – consistently rank above us in FIFA’s world rankings. There are no fewer than six of these teams that are, more often than not, ranked higher than us.
Then, looking at the teams below us, there are more than a few names that’ll bring back horrific memories for the Tartan Army. Georgia, Slovenia and Lithuania all still cause the most optimistic Scot to break into a cold sweat. We may outrank them, but Scotland sides over the last 20 years or so clearly have an issue facing these types of team, particularly away from home.
So the route to qualifying is undoubtedly harder for Scotland now. Where previously there were just three countries, now there around ten that could cause Scotland serious problems in qualifying groups. Sure, the Scotland team of the late 70s was clearly a better side than the current iteration, but they also benefited from playing at a time when there were fewer competitors on the international stage.
Adding further weight to our theory, Scotland’s qualifying record since the collapse of communism is poor. Initially, we actually did quite well, however –between 1989 and 1998, Scotland qualified from four of our five qualification groups. Shortly afterwards, however, the post-Soviet nations got their act together and have been frequently represented at international tournaments since. As we all know, we’ve not been at a finals in 20 years now.
So next time we watch Scotland struggle to a 1-1 draw somewhere around the Baltic Sea, crying out in despair that we used to be better and that things weren’t always like this, just remember: it all began that night in Berlin, with Hasselhoff’s maniacal grin.