Scottish Football Today

The sport of football has come a long way since the days of the English public school boys.  Scotland has been a pivotal player at every stage of the sports development, and the sport has played a central role in maintaining and defining Scottish identity.  In the early days of the sport, the Scots were politically weak within the United Kingdom, but were kings on the pitch, winning 11 and drawing 4 of the 18 matches against England in the 1870s and 1880s.  Today, the tables are turned, as Scotland is increasingly politically independent with a strengthening nationalist movement, but the national side is struggling and the league faces the same difficulties it has for over a century.  We’ll look at what’s changed for Scottish football, how football fits into modern Scottish identity, and what’s next for Scotland and the Scottish FA.

Economic Problems

To begin: Queen’s Park FC, the Scottish side in that first-ever international football match, still competes today, although not at the level she once did.  The oldest club in Scotland and the fourth oldest football club in the world plays in Hampden Park, the 5-star UEFA-rated stadium just outside Glasgow that is home to the Scottish national team.  Though Queen’s Park still shares grounds with the national side, they no longer share many players; Queen’s Park remains an all-amateur side, and as professionalism became the rule of the land, the team has found it harder and harder to compete with her Glasgow neighbors, now playing in the third division of the Scottish League before crowds of about 1,000.

But before professionalism was to become an issue within Scotland, the challenge Scottish football has faced since the game’s inception is the nation’s best players moving south to compete for better wages on English sides.  In some ways, this emigration was essential for the development of the game, as “Scotch professors” introduced their English neighbors to a short-passing style of football that proved far superior to the 10-in-a-line, full-steam-ahead dribbling game played by early English sides.  At the same time, some, such as historian Bill Murray, credit Scottish emigrants with “introducing professionalism in England,” as men looking for work in the mills in northern England found their football ability in high demand.[1] The “nationalism” of these men was routinely questioned, and until 1896 such players were not selected to represent Scotland on any national teams.[2] Those players, pejoratively called “Anglos,” would continue to be blamed for Scottish defeats into the 60’s and 70’s.[3] This criticism neglects the unfortunate reality that with the exception of Celtic and Rangers, Glasgow’s “Old Firm,” Scottish clubs and the entire Scottish league were routinely on the brink of bankruptcy and relied upon transfer fees of their top players to richer (usually English) sides.  The result is a cycle wherein the quality of the Scottish League remains low, non-transfer-based revenue remains low, and fans are left with “mingling the emotions of pride, sense of loss and fatalism” as they watch their nation’s best play in England.[4]

Economic issues such as those faced within Scottish football underscore the bulk of the nationalist movement in Scotland.  While comparisons are often drawn between Scotland’s political situation within Great Britain with the Catalans in Spain and the Quebecois in Canada, such analogies fall apart because in large part, the reasons Scots call for independence tend to be primarily economic rather than cultural.  The working-class population of Scotland has continually expressed more liberal political preferences than their neighbors to the south, advocating greater access to healthcare, welfare and higher education.[5] Despite Scotland’s natural resources, Scotland has a lower GDP per capita than the United Kingdom as a whole and its full-time workers make less at the median than the rest of the British population.[6]

Symbols of Scotland

But Scottish nationalism is more than just dreary economics.  A number of symbols of Scottish identity have persisted through the years by a variety of means.  Surviving Scottish establishments like Scots law, the Church of Scotland, and the Scottish system of education are one means.  Songs, poems, and the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart are another. However they survived through the ages, today, they are worn and waved with pride at Scottish football matches.

Flag of Scotland

The St. Andrew’s Cross is widely recognized as the “flag” of Scotland.  More commonly known as the Saltire, the white cross on the blue background is featured on the flag of the United Kingdom, blended with the flag of England (St. George’s Cross, the red cross on a white background) and the flag of Ireland (St. Patrick’s Cross, a red saltire).

Royal Standard of Scotland

The Royal Standard of Scotland is the flag of the Scottish crown. The Lion rampant made its first appearance in 1222 during the reign of Alexander II of Scotland.  Formerly hung to announce the King of Scots, ever since the unification of the crowns, the flag is rarely seen in an official manner unless in combination with the Royal Standard of England (three Lions passant) and the Harp of the Kingdom of Ireland.  But for the Tartan Army, the Royal Standard of Scotland is another symbol of Scotland’s history and Scottish pride present at national team games.

Bagpipes did not originate in Scotland.  Archaeological evidence suggests they were first brought to the region by Roman invaders in the time of Hadrian, who in turn had acquired the pipes from the Turks.  But today, “Scotland the Brave” is the most widely recognizable bagpipes tune, and the pipes are both an element of traditional Scottish music and some modern Scottish rock.  While some countries’ fans blow horns or bang drums, bagpipes can often be heard when Scotland’s fans gather.

The tartan kilt is widely associated with the clans of the Highlands.  A functional garment that was long enough to double as a blanket in cold weather, kilts were worn by warriors into battle, with the pattern identifying the region or clan from which they hailed.  The English tried to ban the wearing of the tartan with the Dress Act of 1746.  Today, kilts are considered symbolic national dress and acceptable formal-wear, although they are also seen in great numbers at football matches.

Novelty items – while based in history and lore, many of these elements are today implemented in a more whimsical and lighthearted manner.  At the end of the day, people attend football matches to have fun, and the Scottish people have been able to embrace centuries of stereotypes and characterizations and convert them into positive energy for the team and the nation.

Scottish football’s colorful fanbase calls themselves the Tartan Army.  At the national team’s games, whether in Scotland, in England or on the road, the Tartan Army is out in full force embracing all the stereotypically Scottish symbols.

Moving Forward

Scotland’s footballing independence from their English neighbors has only recently been matched on the political front.  The Scottish National Party was formed in the 1920’s to advocate for Scottish issues at Westminster and to fight for the “devolution” of power back to Scotland.  It’s successes on the political front mirrored incidents on the pitch.  The party rose to prominence in the late 1960’s with the discovery of oil in the North Sea (which Scots considered “Scotland’s oil”). This push was helped along by Scotland’s 1967 victory at Wembley over then-World Cup champions England, leading to Scottish claims of being unofficial champions of the world.[7] The party again built steam during the Conservative Party’s reign in the 1970s and 1980s.  Tory policies, such as a poll tax and changes to Scotland’s universal healthcare, were so unpopular with the Scots that fans at the 1988 Scottish Cup Final showed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher “red cards” that had been distributed before the match.[8]

The SNP’s greatest success came with the passing of a referendum for a Scottish Parliament in 1997.  After two years of preparations, the Scottish Parliament “re-convened” (having last met in 1707) on May 12th, 1999, only seven months before the ball was dropped in a Euro 2000 qualifier.[9] The Scottish national team lost that first match to England as a self-governed people 2-0, but won a moral victory in the return leg the following week; Scotland’s 1-0 win was not enough to overturn the first loss and qualify for Euro, but it was Scotland’s first win in England in over a decade.

Before devolution was achieved, it had been suggested that the Scottish national team was the only embodiment of Scottish pride.  The term “ninety-minute patriot” was coined by Jim Sillars, deputy leader of the Scottish National Party, when he was deposed as a Member of Parliament at the General Election in 1992.  At the time, it “seemed doubtful to him that this kind of nationalism could ever be translated into the political form,” although the referendum in 1997 would prove him wrong.[10] Today, the SNP, whose manifesto still declares independence from the UK and entry into the European Union as a goal, holds a plurality of seats in the Scottish Parliament.  The government has been applauded in its young history for its liberal agenda, leading the way for the rest of the UK in terms of smoking bans and fox-hunting bans.

Scotland has had a rough run of play in recent years on both the club and national level.  In this year’s UEFA Champions League, SPL runners-up Celtic failed to reach the group stage and SPL Champions Rangers finished last in their group; in 2008-09, the roles were reversed but the results were the same, as SPL Champions Celtic finished last in their group and it was Rangers who fell in the qualifying rounds.  Scotland finished third in their group in qualification for the 2010 World Cup, including a demoralizing 1-0 defeat to Macedonia.

The competitiveness of the Scottish national team has been called into question.  While Scotland excelled in the early days of the sport as some of the first adopters, but the rest of the world has caught up to the point that a nation like Scotland, with a population of only 5 million, is at a marked disadvantage against European powerhouses like Germany (although similarly-sized Scandinavian countries field reasonably competitive teams).  Similarly, England has in recent years lost their edge on the rest of the world, and it has been over 40 years since England’s only World Cup title.

A unified team representing the United Kingdom could have a greater chance of success.  Other nations, such as France, draw players from the furthest corners of their former empires to field one team, while UK divides its players among four sides.  The upcoming Summer Olympics, to be hosted by London in 2012, provide yet another reason for the teams to unite – the International Olympic Committee do not accept four entries from the United Kingdom as FIFA does.  The Scottish and Northern Irish FA’s reported that they would rather see an all-English side represent the Union Jack than subjugate the independence of their respective associations.[11]

Proposals have also surfaced this fall, as they do every few years, of the Old Firm joining the English Premiership – the most recent suggestion involved the creation of a second division of the Premiership made up of Celtic, Rangers, and a selection of Football League Championship teams.  The Glasgow sides would effectively forego their near-automatic Champions League berths for increased domestic competition and television money.  Such a departure would be devastating for the rest of the Scottish League structure, who rely on the revenue from annual matches with the Old Firm for revenue.  The teams cannot compete with Celtic and Rangers, but they cannot survive without them – a situation that hasn’t changed in a century of competition.  The move would also jeopardize the position of the SFA as a whole and could lead to the elimination of the Scottish national team.  But so far, the Premier League has rejected any such plans.

Amidst increased political independence from England, it is unlikely that now is the time for Scotland to make any move that could lead to the forfeiture of their right to compete in FIFA competitions.  Complete independence from the UK, as the SNP desires, is unlikely – polls offer little consistent data to suggest support for such a drastic change [12] (perhaps Sillar’s “ninety-minute patriot” comment still holds true), and even with popular support for independence, entry into the EU would not be automatic, and the legality of a referendum of independence is ambiguous.

Whatever direction Scottish nationalism takes, the Scottish FA will continue to harness the Scottish spirit and stand against Proud Edward’s army.

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[1] Murray, 8.

[2] Moorhouse, H.F. “One State, Several Countries: Soccer and Nationality in a ‘United’ Kingdom.” From Mangan, J.A. Tribal Identities: Nationalism, Europe, Sport. Portland, OR: Frank Cass Publishers, 2002. 65.

[3] Taylor, Matthew. The Association Game: A History of British Football. New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2008. 300.

[4] Moorhouse, 65.

[5] Gardiner, 138.

[6] Lee, Pete, Statistician. “Regional, sub-regional and local gross value added.” Newport, UK: Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 2009-10-10. Note that GDP numbers are not calculated for Scotland, so estimates are made using General Value Added criteria as outlined in the report.

[7] Taylor, 296.

[8] Gardiner, 112.

[9] Gardiner, Michael. Modern Scottish Culture.  Edinburgh University Press, 2005.  133.

[10] Moorhouse, 71.

[11] Kelso, Paul. “Olympic football team to be ‘all-English’ for London 2012.” The Telegraph, 28 May 2008.  Retrieved 2009-10-10.

[12] Settle, Michael. “Poll: Tory candidates ‘not uncomfortable’ with independence.” HeraldScotland, 17 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-10-10.


Flag of Scotland:

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