TWENTY-FOUR days, 16 teams, four groups, two countries. And no Scotland. Euro 2012 is virtually upon us, which brings most of the Tartan Army to the point when the national team’s ritual absence becomes ever harder to bear.
Those feelings are now commonplace whenever a major tournament comes round, so long has it been since Scotland qualified.
Fourteen years have lapsed since our nation last featured at a footballing finals – the 1998 World Cup in France. The last European Championship appearance was 1996 in England. Yet Scotland reached the previous Euros in Sweden in 1992 when only eight teams gained a place at the finals. The expansion to 16 hasn’t helped the national cause much due to the decline in footballing standards.
It must be hoped that, with UEFA extending the number of finalists from 16 to 24 for the 2016 European Championship in France, Scotland can be one of the main beneficiaries. After all, it wouldn’t say much for the national sport if they cannot secure a place at the top table of 24 leading nations from this continent.
“It’s disappointing, as a Scot, to think we might need 24 teams for us to qualify, whereas before we made it with eight teams,” admitted Dave McPherson, a key member of Andy Roxburgh’s 1992 squad. “It was probably the best eight teams in Europe that got to Sweden. So the stats speak for themselves and we’ve certainly fallen down the rankings. We haven’t kept up with the rest of Europe in terms of producing quality. Now we’ll have to be one of the best 24 and not eight. We have struggled for a number of years for various different reasons, one being the lack of young players. In the past we had far more coming through and a lot of countries outside the UK have caught up with Scotland, and even overtaken them. That’s something we haven’t identified or really done anything about. But I think that is changing back to the way it should be because of the financial situation in the game. We will have to start playing our better younger players at an earlier age, and I think that trend of not qualifying should change back to how it was before.”
It will gall some that Scotland should require extra places to be allocated in order to reach another European Championship. There is no guarantee they would fail to qualify for Euro 2016 in any case, but the Euros of 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 all passed without sight of a saltire in the stands or on the streets. With each failure to reach a major tournament, Scotland’s ranking takes a hit, as proven by a gradual slip down the seeding pots for recent qualifying campaigns.
The expansion, for Scotland, could be considered akin to opening the back garden gate to let neighbours from two streets away join the fringes of the party. But few in this country are likely to complain if it provides a chance to see the national team involved in top level competition once more.
“Qualifying for a major championship has a two-fold effect,” explained McPherson. “Firstly, it’s great for Scottish football because of the rankings. Secondly, it gives the general public something to look forward to and offers hope that the game is getting better. I think we need that more than anything from a football supporter’s point of view. You want to see your country improve and get better. To test yourself as a player individually, you need to play against better teams and better players. If you’re not doing that, it’s hard to gauge how you are progressing. You can play friendly matches but the competitive edge isn’t there compared with a European Championship or a World Cup.”
McPherson pitted himself against a host of footballing luminaries at the peak of his career with Scotland: Brazil’s Romario, Dunga and Careca; Tomas Brolin of Sweden; Italian legends Roberto Baggio and Franco Baresi. Euro 92 provided one of the former Hearts and Rangers defender’s sternest challenges.
“You just need to look at our section – Germany, Holland and the CIS (formerly the Soviet Union). The names in these teams were huge. Guys like Van Basten, Rijkaard, Gullit, Kilnsmann, Riedle and Mikhailichenko. It wasn’t just the best in Europe but the world at that time. It really was a prestige tournament to be playing in. The expectations on Scotland have always been high. We are basically a nation of less than six million people and, when you compare that to other countries, I feel we’ve actually over-achieved at a number of events throughout our history.
“The feeling is we’ve underachieved once we’ve got to major tournaments and if you look back to Sweden in 1992, I feel we could have done better. But we were facing some of the world’s best players at the time and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
“I felt as if it was a major achievement qualifying for the finals in 1992. But, again, the Scottish public and media assumed it was a given right that we would qualify. We were a good team, so we would qualify. We were regarded as one of the better teams in Europe and we proved that by getting to the finals for the first time in Scotland’s history. But there was an expectation there. After doing well getting to the World Cup in 1990, you were expected to follow it by qualifying for the Euros. You felt it. The confidence was there within the players. Although we knew it would be difficult, we certainly had a good enough team to do it.”
Many yearn for a return to the days when the McPhersons, McStays and McCoists donned the dark blue. The future offers some hope that Scotland’s next major championship appearance may not be too far off. Euro 2012 can come and go for now.