Alex Massie

The Horror of Scotland 2 Liechtenstein 1

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I don't know. I really don't. It can't go on. But it will. It bloody will. There are times when watching Scotland play international football produces the sensation that one's actually trapped inside a Beckett play. It might seem a tragicomedy to you but it's no fun in here. A game of two halves, as a friend puts it, in which bugger all that's good happens. Twice.

We can all recite the horrors. The 7-0 hammering against Uruguay in


1954*. The 9-3 unpleasantness against England. Peru. Iran. Costa Rica. The two draws against the mighty Faroe Islands. But all bar the last were at the Big Show and even the grim fiascos against the puffin-munchers were away from home (like Alan Rough, we are clutching at thin air here).

So a 2-1 victory - at home - against Liechtenstein still counts as one of the worst results in Scottish football history and is made only marginally more palatable by the consolation that it could have been, and deserved to be, even worse.

And so it came to pass that in the seventh minute of injury time Scotland grabbed a second goal to claim an infamous victory over an Alpine Meadow and sustain (sic) the


hallucination we could actually qualify for the European Championships. And the crowd at Hampden Park - which was greater than the population of Liechtenstein - roared with relief and approval and celebrated as though we'd defeated Brazil. Humiliating stuff, really.

That's a Beckettian moment too. Where once, in my youth, we dreamed of advancing to the knock-out stages of the World Cup or European Championships, we are now reduced to hoping we might claw our way to a play-off from which we could advance to the tournament itself. These days we consider ourselves relieved if the "dream still lives" beyond our first home fixture. At least England's ambition - win something, please - has remained constant; Scotland's has been victimised by grade inflation.

This is a land that, cruelly, is seriously interested in football but incapable of taking football seriously. If this country was properly serious about football we might be a little better at it and cease accepting, as a given, that any semi-credible opposition - Macedonia or Finland, say - must invariably, automatically, clearly be "technically" superior to Scotland. But while the punters are serious about the game everything else is only pretend-serious.

"Technically" is a weasel word anyway. It seems to carry a whiff of gamesmanship about it. Players who practice, who want to be the best they can, who master the fundamentals of the game? Well, that's tantamount to gaining an unfair advantage. Scottish football, by contrast, seems paralysed at the under-13 level when raw talent or physical presence will be enough to decide the outcome, regardless of tactics, strategy or technique. Scottish footballers hit the ceiling of their ability depressingly early in their careers. (And, this being a small country, that ceiling isn't very high for most of them anyway.) Of the team that started tonight, perhaps only Darren Fletcher is an obviously better player than he was three years ago.

This in turn makes it galling that the manager - whoever the poor sod is - can only praise the "work ethic" of those selected to sport the national colours. By work ethic he means, of course, the ability to run, usually slowly, for 90 minutes. Because, actually, what has become all-too painfully clear these past dozen years, is that Scottish footballers don't possess much of a work ethic at all. If they did they might be better footballers. You know, the kind of footballers able to trap a ball, pass it to a team-mate, move into space, shoot with both feet and all the rest of it.

Never mind passing or moving: they seem incapable of spending enough time practicing how to kick a dead ball. (That the winning goal came from a corner was an irony given how poor Scotland's corners - and free-kicks - had been to that point.) The contrast between footballers and, say, rugby kickers such as Chris Paterson or Jonny Wilkinson is total and not in the footballers favour.

And so we limp on, pretending and kidding ourselves that we're a proper football country. The draw in Lithuania at the weekend was not, regardless of the Balts' victory against the Czechs tonight, a good result or a fine performance. There was a poverty of ambition then too and, as was the case tonight, a palpable lack of confidence.

Certainly, the psychological pressures on the national side are acute: we tell them that they're hopeless and yet demand they achieve great things even as we tell them they're scarcely fit to wear the shirts once possessed by greater players who themselves fell short of turning real ability into goals and points. Nor, for that matter, are the likes of Greece, Slovenia, Croatia, Denmark, Norway and Slovakia as over-laden with history as Scotland. This may help explain their success, at least relative to ours.

Nevertheless, there is a limit. And an undeserved last-gasp victory against a country with an adult male population (that is, males aged between 15 and 64) of 11,482 must constitute some kind of new, horrendous nadir. There are no excuses and no-one else to blame. Scottish football is in the mess it's in because it isn't prepared to be anything better. We are where we deserve to be and by the looks of it we'll be stuck here for some bloody time to come. So it will go on. And on. And on. 

It's not crap being Scottish; the footballers just make it seem that way.

And you English think you have problems?

*Doh. Thanks to Gerry for pointing out the stupid, careless error. Of course we could have gone to the World Cup in 1950 but chose not to. Not the last time parochialism would cost us dear.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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