Sunday, 4 September 2011

Time for some International Football Realism

The struggles of Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular in the weekend's Euro 2012 Qualifiers have followed an all-too-familiar pattern of hope and disappointment. The Scots' failure to hold a lead on two occasions against the Czech Republic at Hampden has left them needing either a string of favours from elsewhere or an unexpected three points in an away fixture against reigning European and World champions Spain. While both of these outcomes seem at best far-fetched, NI's hopes of competing in Poland and the Ukraine are, if not clinically dead, then on round-the-clock life support with a string of relatives already stood round the bed, trying to rationalise the inevitable. Outclassed for long periods by the technically superior Serbs, Northern Ireland imploded as they have on several occasions in recent history while enjoying their best spell of the match. One uncharacteristically sloppy back-pass from the usually reliable Steven Davis, cue Windsor silence - game over.

As an Englishman who wants all of the home nations to do well regardless, the sense of despair that gripped Windsor Park in particular is one that is easy to understand, particularly when a positive result from that single encounter would have completely altered the face of their qualification group. The Scots and NI would be viewing their matches with Lithuania and Estonia respectively with an altogether more positive outlook. As it is, both are now playing catchup, occupying the last chance saloon of win and hope:- namely for the Lithuanians to role over and play dead at Hampden, then take out the Czechs is Kaunas, while NI will be praying that the Faroe Islands, favourite international minnow of so many English fans for their exploits against the Scots, can yield some sort of return from their trip to Belgrade - either that or for NI themselves to win their final match in Italy, take your pick.

Scotland's last appearance at such a showpiece event was back at France 1998, while Norn Iron's green army has to look as far back as Mexico 1986 to answer the same question. While NI have frequently suffered from the perils that come with a low seeding and the requisite rocky road to qualification, the Scots at least had a record of making the finals of the Euros or World Cup that demanded respect, even if their subsequent efforts at the tournaments themselves became something of a laughing stock south of the border (1978 may well have been a year of wildly misplaced optimism and false hope for Ally McLeod's team and their supporters, but it is also worth re-iterating that Scotland qualified for Argentina whereas England's team of 'mavericks' fell short). Here are a couple of the anthems that captured the mood of the time anyway.

After losing to England in a play-off for Euro 2000, perhaps the moment that the rules of the game changed came in March 2001. Scotland have cruised into a 2-0 lead against Belgium, who have also had a man sent off and appear to be losing their cool. Just keep it simple, or at least tight and it's job done, yeah? Not quite - that the Belgians snatch the initiative and momentum of the match in the second half makes little sense, but that is precisely what happened. Marc Wilmots pulls one back, then even with a numerical advantage, the Scots can't prevent Daniel Van Buyten from stealing a dramatic equaliser in stoppage time. It was a critical passage of play for a multitude of reasons - the dynamics of the return match in Brussels had now changed so that Scotland needed a victory from an encounter in which a draw would normally constitute a good result.

That they went down 2-0 while doing so also prompted their slide down the seedings, ensuring more difficult paths to the major tournaments from that point onwards. Everyone acknowledges that their Euro 2008 campaign was the best effort from a Scottish international side since they pipped Sweden to France '98 - that they achieved home and away victories against France was of particular significance (you've gotta love that hysterical commentator, haven't you?) and kept them right in the running until Christian Panucci inserted the final nail by finishing an Italian counter-attack at Hampden. Northern Ireland had moments of their own, most notably the astonishing upset of Spain at fortress Windsor. They also took four points off Sweden and Denmark, with victories in Belfast backed up by hard-earned draws on the road.

However, there's a common denominator here. Both sides failed to make it to Austria and Switzerland because of poor results in games that should have represented bankable points for any team seriously thinking about qualification. Scotland's undoing was a dreadful 2-0 loss in Tbilisi to a truly awful Georgian team that had already run them too close for comfort in the previous fixture. It effectively cancelled out one of those victories against the French and left their showdown with the Azzurri as a must-win game. NI were ultimately sunk by two defeats to Iceland and a loss in Riga (the summer double header against Latvia and Iceland brought nothing, with own goals proving decisive in both games). The problem appears to be that of not only getting one or two results that go against the seedings, but also winning every match which you would be expected to.

Some would suggest that this is a 'chicken and egg' situation that comes with being drawn from pot four - of course the higher seeded nations get 'an easier draw' in that sense, but they still have to take four or more points from opponents ranked below them in order to progress. This is where strength in depth becomes so important during a long and drawn-out qualification campaign that is completed over a period of fourteen months. Scotland and Northern Ireland's best eleven may be able to pull off the occasional result that suggests they can compete with anyone. On that basis, the middle tier of international football is clearly far more tight and congested than it once was, with very few gimmes for all but the top table of footballing nations. The subtle differences are highlighted when a weekend-midweek double header brings the effect of injuries and suspensions into play. Very few teams complete their entire round of fixtures with a line-up completely of their coach's choosing and that is where the problem lies.

If you look at the respective squads of the other home nations, the pattern that emerges is somewhat familiar. All have a handful of Premier League players who have proven themselves at both that level and as strong performers in international football (in Gareth Bale, Wales have the one player from elsewhere in the Uk who might be an automatic pick for England). Beneath that, the roster is made up of players from the Scottish Premier Division, the Championship or League One (moves to other major European Leagues are also very rare). Welsh and Northern Irish domestic football in particular remains part-time and is of a very poor standard, hardly a breeding ground for future members of an international team. They in particular rely on the English club system to unearth and develop their players, which is why the talent pool is as small as it is.

Perhaps in that context, third place and a narrow miss on a play-off actually constitutes a good performance and should be viewed as such. Upon removing any partisan element from the conversation, two points are quite hard to argue with in reality. Even if they're prone to a spot of diving, the current (far from spectacular) Czech side is stronger than Scotland's best eleven, while the Serbs remain that bit more savvy in the art of international football than Northern Ireland. Craig Levein and Nigel Worthington are restricted somewhat by the limitations of the personnel available to them, and 'passion' will only cover so many deficiencies. Over the long haul of eight or ten matches, gulfs in class are invariably reflected in the standings, and only the emergence of greater talent in depth is likely to alter that equation (NI are badly hampered by FIFA rulings on this score, but that's probably a post all of its own).

Scotland vs Lithuania and Estonia vs Northern Ireland are both matches from which a victory for the British side is a distinct possibility - here's hoping they can both pull it off. Take care and I'll catch you tomorrow.

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