THE LAUGHING STOCK OF EUROPE FEATURE - January 1997
|Here's how it is. Excitement
reigns across the football continent, as the European competitions move into their final
phases. Fans from every nation feel the tension as the prides of their countries do battle
on the biggest stages in club football.
Well, not quite every nation. Once more, Scotland, so recently a significant force in European club football (who could forget some of those 80s glory nights when the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona capitulated meekly before the unlikely might of Aberdeen and Dundee United, or even the late 60s when, as well as Celtic's oft-recorded triumph, the likes of lowly Dunfermline Athletic reached the Cup-Winners' Cup semi-final?), is watching from the sidelines, the cream of her talent yet again having been obliterated long before the quarter-final draws. The debate in the bars of Milan and Amsterdam isn't whether the Scots might win a trophy next year, but rather on whether the competition will see Rangers achieve the goal they've been chasing so hard for the last few seasons, namely a six-defeats Champions League whitewash. Mr Ladbrokes is looking after my money for me already.
But why should this be so? At a time when the national side is inspiring more pride and optimism than any time since 1974 (just one defeat and five goals conceded in the last 17 matches), why has our club game degenerated so quickly into such an international laughing stock?
In an attempt to explain this situation, we're going to have to go back to basics. In the traditional New Year Old Firm derby this January, Rangers all but tied up this year's Scottish Premier League by beating Celtic 3-1 and opening up a 14-point lead at the top of the table. With just fractionally over half the games played, the contest was already, barring a ridiculous miracle, at an end, giving Rangers their much sought-after record-equalling ninth championship in a row. Now, bear with me for a minute while I fill in some background.
Despite their having been outplayed for most of the game, a defensive cock-up had gifted Rangers a 2-1 lead seven minutes from the end. Then, with less than five minutes remaining, Celtic's Portugese striker Jorge Cadete got on the end of a header deep inside the Rangers penalty area, and whipped the ball into the net for what looked like a deserved equaliser. The standside linesman, however, thought otherwise and flagged for offside, and a couple of minutes later a dispirited Celtic defence let Erik Bo Andersen through to settle the game, and almost certainly the title, for Rangers.
TV evidence later showed beyond the tiniest fraction of a doubt that Cadete had been at least a yard and a half onside when he collected the ball. About this, absolutely no-one disagreed. The truly remarkable thing, though, was that he clearly wasn't offside even when he shot the ball into the net. At no point anywhere in the proceedings was Cadete ever in front of the last Rangers defender, far less when the ball was actually passed to him. The linesman was perfectly placed in line with the play, and had an unobstructed view. Again, we should emphasise that none of this was in any way under debate - not even the most diehard bluenose could be heard suggesting that the Celtic striker was really offside.
You might expect, then, that with a single blatantly wrong refereeing decision having all but decided the destination of the entire national championship, that the morning's press would be full of the incident. And yet, in over six pages of match coverage in Scotland's two biggest newspapers, it received not a single passing mention, not even in the Daily Record's blow-by-blow "Nine moments that decided the game" summary. (Although it was, incidentally, later revealed by the press that the linesman was on the Rangers season-ticket mailing list, drinks in the local Masonic Lodge and is a self-confessed loyal Gers fan. Ho hum).
"So, what's the point?", you may reasonably be wondering at this stage. "And what the hell's it got to do with Scottish clubs being shit in Europe?" The point is this: no team other than Rangers is ever going to win the Scottish Premier League again. And, as a direct result of that, Scottish teams are going to be shit in Europe from now until Armageddon. Here's why.
Scottish football is simply a more socially acceptable way of fighting religious wars. No news for anyone there. However, this particular war isn't fought with even sides. Around 90% of Scottish referees are thought to be of a Protestant persuasion (though official figures are understandably thin on the ground), and there's no doubt whatsoever that this has given Rangers something of an edge over the last century or so. (If this sounds a bit off, simply check the penalties-awarded statistics for any season you like - surely Rangers players can't get fouled more than anyone else all the time? They're also the only team in the country not to have had a single player sent off in the last two seasons, despite Gazza's best efforts.) The complete lack of any expressed surprise or dissent over the Cadete decision illustrates the fact better than almost anything.
However, until recently, football was sometimes known to get in the way of the fighting, in the shape of other, less, er, "motivated" teams upsetting the applecart by winning trophies, beating the Old Firm and so on. The arrival of super-rich chairman David Murray and, more especially, the advent of the Champions League, has changed that forever. Murray expertly harnessed the economic power of Rangers' huge following (seven football fans, plus about two million psychopaths looking for an anti-Catholic totem) at the end of the 80s, and was agitating strongly for a Euro superleague long before UEFA's compromise Champions League format was finally decided on. These two factors combined mean that the cycle of a Scottish season now goes inevitably like this:
1. With their unrivalled economic strength, Rangers buy up several expensive foreign imports, plus the cream of homegrown talent from other Scottish clubs who, cash-starved since implementing the Taylor Report., can't afford not to sell them. (Aberdeen, for example, Rangers' main challengers for the last 15 years, have sold them basically an entire international defence in the last four seasons, most of whom don't actually get a game at Ibrox but who are bought anyway simply to deprive the opposition of their skills).
2. Despite heroic efforts to cock it up, this inevitably leads Rangers to the league title.
3. The championship grants Rangers entry to the European Cup, where, assuming they can manage to overcome the qualifying round hurdle against the champions of Lithuania or Azerbaijan, they progress to the Champions League.
4. The structure of the Champions League guarantees Rangers several million pounds of profit, no matter how diabolically they embarrass the nation in the actual games. The latter is, of course, inevitable, as the rest of Scottish football has been so weakened by points 1 and 2 that they're incapable of providing anything but token resistance in domestic matches, which means that as soon as Rangers meet quarter-decent Euro opposition, they're suddenly and dramatically out of their depth. (And, of course, also means that Scotland's other representatives invariably depart by the second round at the latest).
5. Meanwhile, back at home, disillusioned and depressed supporters of the other sides begin to stay at home, impoverishing the clubs still further.
6. Rangers come back with their pockets full of UEFA cash, and the whole sorry circus starts up again.
And it really is that simple. Scottish club sides are hopeless in Europe because they're being strangled to death by Rangers, and Rangers are hopeless in Europe because they've strangled the other Scottish sides so effectively to death that they don't provide Rangers with any decent match practice. In the past this wasn't such a problem, because Rangers (or any other strong team of the time, such as Jock Stein's legendary 60s Celtic side) weren't so massively subsidised by UEFA - a couple of barren seasons and the rest of the Scottish league would catch up with them again (especially as tens of thousands of fans deserted the Ibrox stands, as they tend to do in times of strife), leading to the kind of competitive football on which the FA Carling Premiership is thriving so impressively at the moment, which in turn led to a far better national showing in Europe and so on.
Disagree? Think I'm exaggerating? Oversimplifying? Just a Rangers hater? Let's hear it, then.
"Come on, you can't blame the whole thing on Rangers."
But I just have. The facts are incontrovertible. They bleed the rest of Scottish football dry, win the league without breaking sweat, and are then hopelessly ill-prepared for the standard of even run-of-the-mill European opposition. Like Grasshoppers Zurich, say.
"So what are they supposed to do, deliberately lose the league for a couple of seasons?"
Well, exactly. While this *would* actually do them good in the long run, it's not the way human nature works. Besides which, deliberately losing would hardly be a good way to foster competitive domestic opposition. Also, you have to consider whether or not Rangers are unhappy with the system the way it's working out - they're hugely profitable, they win almost everything, and their fans are largely parochial bigots who don't really care about Europe anyway as long as they're beating Celtic regularly. (Sorry, but it's true - for reference, check out TF issue 3's tale of how Ibrox attracted 10,000 more fans for a meaningless League Cup match against East Stirlingshire in 1991 than for a crucial European Cup game against then-European champions Red Star Belgrade four days later.) The rest of the opposition is irrelevant. If it ain't broke...
"But Celtic have nearly as big a fanbase as Rangers - surely they can provide a serious domestic challenge?"
Doubtful. For most of the 80s, dreadful boardroom management saw Celtic existing on a shoestring. Although things have finally got back on a more even keel (despite the huge expense of totally rebuilding Parkhead in the last couple of years), Rangers have built up such a head start (thanks in part to some forward thinking in the stadium department back in the 80s) that Celtic are unlikely to ever catch up again, especially with UEFA pouring cash into the Ibrox coffers every year. And even if they did, a two-team monopoly's barely any better for the Scottish game as a whole than a one-team monopoly. (The gap between second-placed Celtic and third-placed Aberdeen in last year's Premier League was a staggering 30 POINTS, and this season is shaping up the same way.)
"And what's to stop another good team springing up out of nowhere against the odds, like Aberdeen and Dundee United did in the 80s? You can't legislate against the discovery of great new players."
No, but you can create economic conditions where teams can't afford to hold onto them. Haven't you been listening? The whole point is that there didn't used to be a Champions League guaranteeing at least half-a-dozen hugely lucrative European matches for just one team, setting them financially miles apart from all their domestic opposition. Now there is.
"Ah, but what about Rangers' great unbeaten Champions League run of just a few seasons ago?"
What about it? They didn't beat anyone really good, it was a blip anyway (as previous and subsequent campaigns have clearly proved), and even if they *had* won the trophy it would only have made things worse in the long run, for the reasons exhaustively identified earlier.
"So who cares anyway? It's only the Jocks."
Today it's Scotland. Tomorrow...
And that brings us to the real reason for the Scottish clubs' European malaise. What's happened to Scottish club football in the last few years has merely been a side-effect of the preparation for something a lot bigger that's about to sneak in through the back door. Rangers have, deliberately and actively, become too big for Scotland, with Celtic tagging along, albeit some way behind, on the same road. Similar behaviour can be seen in England, with the big Premiership clubs driving an ever-bigger wedge between themselves and the rest. The reason for that is that within the next five years, there can be little doubt that we're finally going to see the formation of the mythical European Super-League. The major clubs from all over the continent will entirely abandon their domestic leagues as a real concern (perhaps leaving a Man Utd Coca-Cola Cup-style ghost team behind as a sop, or perhaps just completely upping sticks and leaving the rest of us to our fate), taking TV and sponsorship cash with them.
The Scottish league isn't suffering uniquely, it's simply pioneering the route that all European club football is about to follow. So even if you're one of those English fans who think Scotland is a Mickey Mouse league anyway, you should be paying attention (although it's already too late).
This is going to be an invitation-only party. Raith Rovers players, whatever heroics they might perform again in the Coca-Cola Cup, shouldn't bother getting their passports out. And if you don't support Rangers, Celtic, Man Utd, Newcastle or Liverpool, neither should you.
"Rangers have certainly outgrown Scotland, and while Celtic are theoretically the only competition, it's probably true to say that they're never now going to catch up. David Murray has, I think, been quoted as saying the European Super League will be reality by the year 2000, and frankly I think it would be good for Scottish football as a whole if it was. I think it's fair to say Rangers' superiority has been strangling the competitive game here, and that's never going to do our European performances any good."
Andy Swinbourne, Deputy Sports Editor, Daily Record
"The other reason Rangers can't compete in Europe is that all the referees aren't Masons."
Andy Anthony, manager of city centre pub Jenny Ha's.