There has been an inordinate amount of wailing , moaning and vacant stares around Glasgow this past week, sadly not all has been confined to the set of “World War Z”, Brad Pitt’s film in which he tries to prevent a zombie Apocalypse, which is currently filming in the city. The film’s premise could be used as a metaphor for Scottish football.
For the Scottish football community has not yet woken up to it’s own end of days, or it cannot understand what has happened. The nation has no clubs left in European competition before the autumn leaves fall from the trees. The media have gone into overdrive , whole rain forests have been felled to provide newsprint for the punditocracy to condemn as shameful (an adjective used more and more frequently by the hysterical tabloids to describe every aspect of Scottish favourite pastime these days!) the attempts by the Old Firm and Heart of Midlothian to qualify for the group stages of Europe’s secondary competition, the Europa League, Rangers having already been eliminated from the premier competition, the Champions League, at the first hurdle by average Swedish champions Malmo on yet another “night of shame”.
Quite how the famous old Edinburgh clubs can be tarred with the same brush as the wealthier Glasgow “giants” is a bewildering as the reaction of some women of a certain age to the presence of a Hollwood actor in their city. All rational thought seems to evaporate. Anyone surprised by Hearts’ five nil demolition by Tottenham Hotspur in the first leg at Tynecastle must have had the same full frontal lobotomy that Mr. Pitt’s adversaries in his blockbuster have endured. Spurs could have put him in goal and fielded his good lady, Angelina Jolie, at centre half and still destroyed the “Jam Tarts”, such is the difference in wealth and class between the two sides.
Those who doubt that wealth matters in such competitions can point to Shamrock Rovers’ progression at the expense of Partizan Belgrade, but the reality is somewhat different. European football has changed in important ways, to the detriment of Scottish teams as I shall explain below. Until Scottish football accepts these realities and deals with them, qualification for Champions League group stages and the odd U.E.F.A Cup final appearance and will become rarer and rarer and all of the radio phone in waffle and ten point plans to save Scottish football that I have been hearing for the best part of thirty years will continue to be superfluous flim -flam.
Our so called experts in the game and in the press need to recognise the following truths :
Firstly, European football does not want us. They are not interested in us. The problem with Scotland is that we are a small country of around five million souls and when that is translated into television revenue that is pretty small beer, despite the potential worldwide television audience of the Scottish and Irish diaspora, we don’t count when compared to the larger, more lucrative markets of the larger European countries who now have up to four teams in the “Champions League”, and so obstacles are erected at every turn to deny us entry.
In the late eighties Ramon Mendoza, then president of Real Madrid, was aghast at drawing the champions of Italy in the first round of the European Cup two years out of three. The threat to his revenues of an early exit from the continent’s premier competition was too much to contemplate and so he and the industrialists and businessmen at the head of Europe’s top clubs formed plans for breakaway European super leagues financed by satellite television millions. UEFA , desperate to retain their power and influence ,butchered their own competition, the European Cup, turning it into the Champions League, a Frankenstein’s monster of a tournament where the teams from the largest European countries, or those who could provide the largest television revenues were provided with safe havens of seeded places in group sections, guaranteeing them at least six games in the competition and usually straightfoward passage to the lucrative final knockout stages.
UEFA then abandoned the principle that entrants had to be national champions, in the wake of more pressure from the larger nations and now we have the absurdity of teams like Napoli, who last won Serie A in 1990, and Villareal, who have never won La Liga, in the group stages by virtue of the fact they play in Italy and Spain , two of the favoured nations. The inclusion of these imposters at the expense of legitimate national champions makes a mockery of the competition’s title. So the champions of proud footballing nations such as Scotland are forced to play qualifying ties earlier and earlier in summer, while the big boys relax on beaches, to scrap for the few remaining places in the groups not gifted to the also rans of the Premiership, the Bundesliga et al.
Should they manage to negotiate their way to the group stages, their chances of progression are hindered still further by the way the sections are created . In each group there are usually two clubs from the favoured leagues and two minnows to ensure that the usual suspects make it through to the knockout stages. This makes for sterile group games in front of half full stadia and a lot of meaningless matches; as the places are usually decided by the third round of matches. But for UEFA’s favoured sons the financial rewards mean they can continue to distance themselves from competitors in their domestic leagues and form a cartel of four teams who each year contest the top four places in their division, leading to qualification for the following seasons Champions League.
Until this inequality is corrected , legitimate national champions will find it harder and harder to enter the promised land of the Champions League . Sadly this is not likely to happen anytime soon. As former England captain Bryan Robson opined on the undercover sting by Channel 4 programme “Dispatches” , football is a business now , part of the entertainment industry and all that matters is tv ratings and audience figures. Arsenal Versus Barcelona is worth more in television revenue than Rangers versus Barcelona, the days of fair play and level playing fields are long gone. This is the reality that Scotland must wake up to. We don’t count. The men running football are not interested in us, which is why they kindly created a second division of the European Super League- the unloved and ignored second son – the Europa League. The refuge for those teams not considered “sexy” enough for prime time, that is where we must now try our luck, but for now, our clubs struggle even to make that grade.