Forgive the Tartan Army should they be slightly pessimistic about Scotland’s chances of qualification following the draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. While Three Lions supporters expect to see England qualify, only to bow out in the quarterfinals or encounter heartache over phantom goals and botched penalties, Scottish supporters have not seen Saint Andrew’s Cross fly in the World Cup since 1998. That summer, on the soil of Auld Alliance partner France, the Tartan Army saw ten Scottish players leave the pitch at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in defeat, having played Morocco a man down most of the 2nd half in what became a 3-0 loss. The loss ensured Scotland finished last in Group A, with the defending World Cup champions Brazil and a surprising Norwegian squad advance. Granted, Norway’s shock win over Brazil in the final group matches had been the result that truly eliminated both Scotland and the North Africans on the day, but ending in Saint Étienne last in the group with only two goals scored in the tournament was a kick up the kilt that continues to sting, considering Scotland has not returned to the world stage since.
A World Cup without Scotland seems rather commonplace for observers of international football today as the Home Nation has been absent the proceedings for the past three cycles. With squads managed by the likes of Ormond, Stein, and Craig Brown unable to even advance beyond the group stage when they did qualify, many would surmise Scotland’s current no-shows as negligible in the main. Still, though, this is a nation whose passion for the sport gave birth to the very idea of international football when it hosted the first international match against England in 1872. A bit chafed at the notion of English FA Secretary Charles Alcock arranging matches between England and cobbled together Scotland squad that featured London players with Scottish roots rather than any team sanctioned north of the border, Queens Park took up the challenge and hosted the first recognizable international game on a cricket ground. Now, there could be a quibble about this distinction as that game at Hamilton Crescent featured two British squads playing one another, with Scotland represented in full by a single club, but there was a national border crossed by the English to get to that pitch, and judging by how fiercely the Home Nations wish to keep their individual national footballing identities in the midst of the Team GB discussions, that was assuredly an international match.
It just wasn’t a very friendly first friendly.
Further, despite Scotland missing the past three finals hosted in Asia, Europe, and Africa, the nation was once a regular participant as late as 1990, having featuring in five consecutive finals beginning in 1974. During that run, Scotland contributed one of the better goalscoring moments in world football when Archie Gemmil scored against the Dutch to put the Tartan Army into fits as it presented a real chance for the Scots to progress beyond the first group stage for the first time. The moment was fleeting, of course, as Holland pegged one goal back from legend Johnny Rep to end the match at 3-2 and deny Scotland’s advancement once again on goal difference. Still, that gasp at glory will forever be remembered, and the international tournament remains in Scotland’s debt for producing such a drama for an event that has since become slightly stale over the years as managers of the top nations opt for more conservative play to avoid their squads making that one crucial mistake that could cost them their jobs.
The musical community also owes Gemmil a debt for inspiring the song “Sex, Drugs, and Sausage Rolls.”
As the number of countries has increased and qualification expanded to make it more difficult for a smaller European nation such as Scotland to get there, World Cups without a Scottish representative should still appear incomplete. While their international failures can be widely cited to demonstrate why Scotland will likely never regain a spot in a world game dominated by powers from the southern hemisphere as well as the larger European states, it has not been such a long time since some of today’s more prominent nations were performing similarly to those who fly the Saltire. Spain, the world’s No. 1 and currently winning any international event it enters be it on the senior or youth level, endured several disappointing early exits in European Championships and the World Cup until La Furia Roja began their all-conquering ways just three years ago. Sitting above Scotland in Pot 2 in the draw was France, 1998 World Cup champions but also a nation that has experienced rough patches before and certainly after hosting the event. Argentina won the event twice but over the years have had their own English heartbreaks with quarterfinals exits along with that rather shocking group stage business in Korea/Japan. Uruguay–like Scotland a small fish fighting whales in its confederation–is currently on a high after its semifinal appearance in South Africa and recent Copa America title, but its not so distant history includes failed qualifications in 1994, 1998, and 2006 with a first round disappearance in between.
Highlighting the shortcomings of these other nations should not be construed as a justification of Scotland’s recent international track record but rather to illustrate that even some of the more successful footballing countries, except Brazil, find themselves in periods of decline. When Willie Ormond led Scotland into Germany in 1974 with a squad featuring Bremner, Dalglish, and Law, it had been sixteen years since Scottish supporters had enjoyed watching their boys in a World Cup. This upcoming tournament in Brazil will also mark sixteen years since the Tartan Army traveled to see Scotland compete for the Jules Rimet. Might Lady Luck smile on the Scots once again? After all, they seem to be quite overdue, and, as Uruguay has demonstrated lately, national size is not an excuse for those heavily reliant on a Soccernomics view of world football.
Rather, a fortuitous handball could just do the trick.
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