The concept of ‘glorious failure’ is deeply etched on the Scottish collective psyche. The idea of the noble challenger coming so near, and yet so far, is a major feature of the nation’s sense of self. From the Darien Scheme, to Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden, right the way through to Archie Gemill and the much-hyped 1978 World Cup’s squad, whose failure was said to be a factor in the narrow defeat on a technicality of the 1979 devolution referendum, Scots appear to identify with the plucky loser who heroically defies the odds before being brought back to earth with a bump. No doubt if Alex Salmond’s nationalists lose the 2014 independence referendum, they too will be characterised by history in such a way. The tradition was alive and well only 5 years ago, when Scotland narrowly missed out on qualification from a Euro 2008 qualifying group containing Italy, France and Ukraine, after a dubious foul in the dying minutes of the campaign was given against Alan Hutton to give Italy the free kick from which they scored to win the match. After that match, the players were hailed as heroes, and the Tartan Army did what they do best; play down sporting failure by being gracious in defeat and being ‘the best fans in the world’. It’s a formula that has been tried and tested for 20 years.
However, the current national team is giving no impression of allowing the fans such an easy option. After a home double-header to Serbia and Macedonia to start the 2014 World Cup campaign, Craig Levein’s squad could only manage two draws against mediocre opposition. As a result, they now sit 4th in a group which also contains Belgium, Croatia and Wales, meaning they already face an uphill struggle to be in contention for a play-off spot come Autumn 2013. It was the manner of the performances, though, which concerns most. If previous generations of Scotland supporters have been weaned on glorious failure, it appears as though this one will reminisce about abject mediocrity and underachievement.
In both games, Scotland had the players available to at least cause their opponents significant problems, but on both occasions failed to do so to any great extent. Much of the blame for this has to be laid at the door of the manager. Craig Levein’s reign has been defined by a stifling conservatism that brought us the 4-6-0 debacle in Prague, where a team played with no striker in an admission that a draw was enough, for which many fans have never forgiven the former Hearts defender. It is the same conservatism which prompted Levein to play 32 year-old Kenny Miller as a lone striker for 80 minutes in the Serbia game, and which causes him to continually leave Jordan Rhodes on the bench until it’s too late for him to influence the game. However, if his tactics are suspect, his people skills appear to be worse. The ongoing feud with Steven Fletcher, Scotland’s £12 million striker, hurts only his chances of qualifying, while one of Scotland’s few genuinely top-class players sits on the sidelines, and his unwillingness to pick the in-form Rhodes has at times almost seemed borne out of bloody-mindedness more than tactics. The most striking statistic of all is that of 12 competitive games in charge, Levein has only won against Liechtenstein (twice) and Lithuania.
This time though, the downwards trajectory of Scottish football’s fortunes seems to have provoked a departure from the tried and tested formula, and narrative of glorious failure, now that the old solutions no longer appear to apply, among some fans. One wing of opinion takes the fatalist view, that Scotland is ‘finding its level’ in the new European order established after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we have punched above our weight for years. According to them, the gradual decline of Scotland as a footballing power is inevitable, and has been happening since the 60s. This viewpoint can essentially be boiled down to ‘eternal glorious failure’. That is to say, eternal failure.
The new wing of opinion, however, argues that although Scotland has declined, and this is natural, it was well within the squad’s capabilities to obtain 6 points last month, and the players and management must bear the blame for that. They argue for a change of personnel at the top in order to revitalise a set of players who have the necessary quality to mount a serious challenge for qualification. They argue that defeatism has gone on too long.
It is a time of dramatic change in Scotland. In politics as in football, old certainties are fading fast. The notion that Scotland would qualify for a major tournament every few campaigns is as dead as the idea that ‘devolution will kill nationalism stone dead’. With a majority SNP government in the Scottish Parliament, and a forthcoming referendum on full independence, some Scots appear to be taking a harder look at themselves than previously. The old notion of the ‘Scottish cringe’ where Scots did not think themselves capable of success, whether in self-government or international sport, suddenly seems very outdated (if it ever really existed outside the imagination in the first place). In this context, we can place the rejection of glorious failure as part of the narrative of Scotland ‘growing up’ as a society, taking the difficult decisions on sovereignty and politics for itself, and rejecting fatalism and determinism past and future in the same way as Craig Levein must take the difficult decisions on tactics and personnel, with no heed to the stultifying effect of glorious failure, and the assumption that this is how it must always be.
Image by Slugger O’Toole
In fact, it almost appears that football and politics have a symbiotic relationship in Scotland. Over the years, SNP vote share and the FIFA ranking of the national team have a peculiarly close correlation. The argument which says they are related states that Scots feel more confident about themselves when the national team does well, and hence vote SNP, confident in their nation’s potential. This is tantalising, but runs contrary to the recent ascendancy of the SNP while the national team stagnates. Political nationalism has moved well beyond the hackneyed ‘Scottish not British’, Glengarry-wearing, God Save the Queen-booing patriotism of the Tartan Army, into a progressive vision for a social-democratic, liberal Scotland based not on ethnicity but citizenship and tolerance. In any case, the Scottish electorate has proved itself more than shrewd enough over the past few years to discount any notion that they are easily led by something as simple as how well their football team is doing at that moment.
There is a way back for Scotland. While the fans and society at large must accept that they live in a small country, and qualification from any group will be extremely difficult, much like the societal change a majority of Scots want to see in today’s globalised world, they should reject the idea that nothing can be done to improve the situation, and that failure, glorious or otherwise, is inevitable.
Political and Cultural Blogger