Whisper it, but Scottish football is on the mend

After years of dereliction and failure, our national team may have found its saviour in Gordon Strachan

In the world of international football, even small nations are granted one chance in their lifespans to be remarkable for a few years. These little countries can be divided into two categories: those that acknowledge that a star has risen in the east with their name on it and act accordingly, making provisions to ensure that they will make the utmost of their golden years.

Each of them knows that they may never be anointed in this way again. Countries such as Denmark, Uruguay, Croatia, Poland, Hungary and the Republic of Ireland fall into the first category. These have all experienced periods in their history when their international teams were counted among the very best on the planet. Belgium and Switzerland are currently enjoying this transfiguration and were named among the top eight seeds, announced last Friday, for the World Cup in Brazil next summer.

Only one country falls into the second category: Scotland. For, of those nations where football is the national sport, only this one has never, ever enjoyed anything remotely resembling a period of success. Never once has an Italian said: "Mamma mia! I jockissimi sono magnifici oggi." In one period in our history, Scotland had a chance to be magnificent but we blew it because this nation has, for many, many years had the misfortune to be been run by the most incompetent ruling body in world football: the Scottish Football Association. Between 1965 and 1972, Scotland had at its disposal the most startlingly gifted array of players at any one time in our history but we missed our shot at glory.

Denis Law, Ian St John, Dave Mackay, Pat Crerand, Charlie Cooke, Billy Bremner, Alan Gilzean and Jim Baxter all played in the same 10-year period. At this time also, Scotland had Celtic's Lisbon Lions, the finest team the nation has ever produced and, for a five-year period, arguably the top club side in the world. If that Celtic team had been Polish or Belgian or Danish the international team would have filled their boots with them and lived off their riches. But they were Scots and, as such, only one of them was dee med good enough to gain more than 25 caps for his country.

In any other country, Celtic would have formed the core of the national team and Law, Bremner, Gilzean and the others would have revolved around them. This was Scotland, though, and so our one and only golden generation failed to qualify for four successive international tournaments following some bizarre coaching arrangements and, ahem, "quaint" team selections.

The list of the SFA's crimes and misdemeanours against football is never-ending. The last time the World Cup was held in Brazil, in 1950, they refused to allow Scotland to participate on the grounds that, as they had only finished second in the qualifying Home International table to England, it would be wrong to do so.

Four years later, the SFA did allow Scotland to compete despite finishing second once more in the Home International series. On this occasion, the host nation was Switzerland; presumably the bill for taking a squad of players for a couple of weeks was a lot less than it would have been for Brazil.

Even so, the SFA allowed the hapless team manager, Andy Beattie, to travel with only 13 players from his original 22. Not for the first time, the Scotland squad was to be outnumbered by the travelling blazerati. The SFA even allowed Rangers, then Scotland's dominant force, to withdraw all its players from the squad as they were needed for a holiday tour of the US. Subsequently, the manager resigned after an opening defeat to Austria and left the team to the tender mercies of SFA selectors who oversaw a 7-0 defeat by Uruguay.

On several other occasions, the SFA's profound errors of judgment have rendered promising Scotland squads completely impotent. Duncan Ferguson, the finest Scots striker of his generation, vowed never to play for the international team again after these reactionary old buffoons almost destroyed his career by insisting on a draconian ban in Scotland being served in England too.

The SFA seemed to specialise in promoting an assortment of dismal and mustachioed wee men to be their chiefs at this time, all of whom behaved as though they were starring in their own private version of Duck Soup.

The Scottish Football Association has squandered Scotland's international football heritage and our failure to qualify for a major tournament since 1998 can be laid squarely at its door. During that time, emerging nations from Africa and eastern Europe, without a fraction of Scotland's wealth, resources and hinterland, have overtaken us. Bosnia Herzegovina, which only came into being in the 90s, has qualified for Brazil, while Iceland is just one step away.

For 40 years, our parks have echoed to a constant stream of foul-mouthed and semi-literate invective masquerading as youth football coaching. A quisling and incestuous mafia of dim-witted former professionals has all too regularly been awarded coaching posts at senior clubs and packed their teams with talentless, 7ft leviathans and shilpit, scurrying Boabs and Tams. Whenever we played at international level, we seemed to be playing in quicksand.

A generation of supporters was lost to the game because they were being charged the price of a day at Wimbledon or the Open to watch pish, eat gruel and sit in a Portakabin. The exploitation continued in the club souvenir shop with shoddy, overpriced, painted goods made in a Taiwanese sweatshop.

Because we are Scots, though, we never fail to hope that something better might just be around the corner. Having wrecked the Brazilian campaign before it had properly started by appointing the hopelessly unsuitable Craig Levein, the SFA belatedly turned to Gordon Strachan, a man who seems to make footballers walk a little taller. For the first time in many, many years, Scottish footballers are playing the same game as everyone else and prevailing. There is passing, movement, fight and swagger and we sometimes play with more than one attacker.

Only one thing has been worse than being a Scottish football supporter these last 20-odd years and that's being an England fan. For what can be worse than having a team capable of winning World Cups and knowing they never will again?

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