The latest installment of international football’s oldest rivalry is a jarring reminder for Scotland of just how far the team has fallen – and keeps on plummeting. The balance of power has firmly been in England’s favor for decades.
And yet thousands of Scotland fans will still travel south to London for Friday’s World Cup qualifier while fatalistic about their team’s chances.
“I feel sorry for the younger fans because the future looks bleak,” said Hamish Husband, a 58-year-old member of a Scottish supporters group. “The reasons are self-inflicted. Not unlike England, we have this belief that because we invented football then somehow we had a right to success.
“We have just been left behind. Modern football has changed and Scottish football has not changed with it.”
The rivalry that began in 1872 is being renewed at Wembley Stadium for the 113th time. It was forged on fading memories of fiercely-competitive tussles on the field and fiery exchanges that often turned violent around the stadium. They were times when both England and Scotland contested major tournament finals and both teams could deploy gifted players.
England constantly agonizes over its limited international success, with the 1966 World Cup its only title and no final appearance since then. But England is reaching tournaments – with rare slip-ups – unlike Scotland, which last qualified for the World Cup in 1998.
When the newly-expanded 24-team European Championship took place in France this year, all the British teams participated apart from Scotland. Even Iceland, with a population of 330,000, qualified for the first time and reached the quarterfinals. Scotland, whose population exceeds 5 million, is trying to figure out why it has fallen so far behind and allowed other countries to race ahead.
“We look at countries like Iceland, which is showing what can be achieved with limited population and limited resources,” SFA chief executive Stewart Regan told The Associated Press.
Thousands of members of the Tartan Army heading to Wembley will do so knowing there is little point booking trips to Russia for the 2018 World Cup. The Scots are only in fourth place in their qualifying group.
The SFA is aware of the negativity surrounding the team and tapped into that sentiment in a rallying cry for fans ahead of Friday’s game that was downbeat while still trying to offer a flicker of hope.
“Aren’t we a picture of sadness at time like these? Dour-faced at the idea of not qualifying, sitting there thinking – tragedy,” the narrator says on the video posted to the SFA Twitter account. “Results suggest we are in for a bumpy ride, but what’s new about that?”
After three matches in Group F, England is already out in front in the only automatic qualification place. But the video implores: “We are only three games in and just three points off top spot. Boom! We’re not dead yet. It’s not impossible. We’ve beaten them at their bit before.”
Not since 1999, when Scotland won 1-0. But a 2-0 loss in Glasgow meant England won the playoff and went to Euro 2000 instead.
Now, Scotland can’t even beat 98th-ranked Lithuania on home soil, held 1-1 last month. In the FIFA rankings, Scotland is 57th, sandwiched between Macedonia and Mali, while England is 12th.
“Thirty years of decline can’t be fixed instantly as much as there is a desire for overnight success,” Regan said. “The pipeline of players we have got isn’t flowing quite as fast as it’s flowing in England.”
For Regan, there’s a correlation between the decline of Scottish football and the rapid growth of the English game, where the Premier League has become the world’s richest football competition since being established in 1992.
“The TV money came into England and clubs were able to purchase players from overseas,” Regan said. “More and more foreign players came into the game and those foreign players took slots in the squad that Scottish players had previously had taken.
“The Scottish players were no longer getting game time but were still prepared to go south because the wages that they are earning are still greater than they could earn in Scotland.”
In an attempt to bolster the pool of players available to Scotland’s national teams, 33 million pounds ($41 million) has been spent on Oriam, the SFA’s newly-opened performance center.
“We are horrific in Scotland at the moment,” Scotland coach Gordon Strachan said. “We are in the worst state we’ve ever been. I am not talking about the Scotland national team, but the standard of kids coming through.”
Only six members of the 25-man squad for the England game play in the Premier League. Another nine from are lower-league clubs in England. Just four are from Scottish champion Celtic. The standout name is winger Oliver Burke, who joined Bundesliga club Leipzig in August to develop his game.
Husband, who is preparing to make his 13th trip to Wembley as a Scotland fan, remembers a time when the national team featured world-class players like Denis Law, a title winner with Manchester United in the 1960s, and Kenny Dalglish, who collected trophies as a player and manager at Liverpool in the 1970 and 80s.
“There is no sign of players of that stature appearing in the near or significant future,” Husband said. “Unfortunately there’s fatalism about the Scotland fans because the decline in our fortunes has happened for a long number of years and none of us have the answer.”