Can state intervention work for football in a developed democracy?

Can state intervention work for football in a developed democracy?

Fans of a certain age will remember those great sporting powerhouse teams and players of the former Soviet Union or those hot-housed talents athletes and gymnasts of the Eastern Bloc. But in the post Cold War climate, and especially in Western Europe, there’s been a marked move away from state intervention in sports.

The notable exception is Germany’s root and branch development plan that followed a disastrous France 1998 and climaxed with a World Cup win in 2014.

But elsewhere in Western Europe, there are bigger fish to fry. With more pressing social and economic issues, a lack of collective will or a sense that clubs’ interests outweigh those of the national teams within EU member countries, no-one has much of a stomach for tackling our national game and its failings at a political level.

Brexit et al, is another deal entirely, of course, but football, with its fans, its wages and transfers, and its unruly players is something of a poisoned chalice for governments wherever you look in Europe.

Scotland has produced its own Project Brave, of course, under the auspices of the new SFA Performance Director Malky Mackay.

Ideas are one thing, but implementation is another.

And Scottish football in particular is littered with examples of think tank plans, initiatives and blueprints that have arrived with a bang and died with a whimper as victims of regime change, the latest ‘blue sky thinking’ and a sense that there is always a newer, shinier and groovier model to latch onto – a new and better plan elsewhere.

So, if you were to ask the question: ‘Can state intervention lead to positive outcomes for football in western democracies?’ then I would have to say (with the honourable exception of patriotic and proactive Germany aside) ‘no, I don’t think so’.

State intervention worked for Germany

Tackling the culture

The problems in Scotland are both cultural and historic. They can’t easily be resolved by political intervention by any party. I can only assume that it is much the same in other ailing European football nations at club and international level.

In almost all cases football club answers always come back to money, opportunity, luck and momentum – whatever the question is.

The issue of money, and in particular its more favourable redistribution, is self evident. More money, better spent could improve almost anything. It brings stability and the potential to invest in a future plan.

So, in Scotland, that’s oligarchs, white knight owners, coming into play – as opposed to politicians.

I say that because I think success in Scotland will come from individual clubs rather than from a national plan. And the reason I say that is due to the reality that Rangers and Celtic, as Scotland’s behemoth clubs, are always operating to their own football, commercial and societal agendas. And typically that agenda runs contrary to the good of the wider game.

What sets the agenda

Then there’s the press in Scotland and the fans.

And in both cases, their contribution to the national game in Scotland is broadly negative.

The press operate to a commercial agenda and it is an agenda that begins and ends with access at Rangers and Celtic. There is no other story in town and in private, those involved will admit as much.

As a broader cultural observation, newspaper offices are staffed by ‘fans with typewriters’ – enthusiasts with a negligible understanding of the game. They are poor judges in very many cases yet they wield an influence that can make or break careers.

The fans meanwhile are passionate but too partial in their opinions. Our hysteric football culture is driven by a specious news agenda that is exacerbated in the social media era. Petty rivalries, an obsession with decontextualised stats and gossip, prevails at the expense of a sober appraisal of matters on the field.

Again, like the media that serves them, the fans lack patience, perspective and understanding. And this is compounded by the fact that we’ve lost that great popular sense of Scotland as a country where everyone plays football and watches football – the culture if you like, of organised industrial labour, and social clubs and institutions running local football teams.

Replacing mass participation, we now have a culture of pseudo expertise. That is ‘pub quiz’ armchair football knowledge that has been ‘hard-won’ watching Sky Sports and playing football manager simulation games. There really is no substitute to developing a warts and all understanding of the game and what it is really like – as opposed to how it looks in 360 degree HD on a wall-mounted plasma.

Distant opportunity

Opportunity is that great Golden Ticket in football, and in life. It sets standards, broadens horizons and creates heroes that young people want to emulate and to idolise. With the best will in the world few young Scots will be down the park after school, trying to emulate Robert Snodgrass or Grant Hanley like my generation dreamed of emulating Dalglish, Souness, Nicholas, McStay and all the rest.

And that close proximity to genuine heroes is vital. It makes emulation possible. Ronaldo and Messi exist in a different galaxy in football and cultural terms, Dalgish, Souness and the rest, did not.

In 1966, the year that England won the World Cup, Scots made up 20 per cent of the players operating in the then First Division and that represents a lot of very visible role models and the basis of a very strong national side and football culture.

Nowadays, opportunity, in Scotland’s case, would mean repetition and success breeding success. It might mean the wildcard lifeline outcome of an Atlantic league or access to the riches of England’s premier league. These are two distant prospects currently and for well-worn reasons. More likely it will take a stellar team from Scotland capturing the imagination in a European cup competition. But that feels as distant as ever – as distant as the era of Alex (rather than Sir Alex) Ferguson and Jim McLean.

Luck might coalesce in the form of a golden generation of players emerging simultaneously and from nowhere and unbidden. That actually does happen now and again – see Belgium for example.

This type of golden generation also needs the oxygen of luck and opportunity to flourish. Especially in a small country like Scotland with a mere 5 million population. For context, Spain has a population of 46 million, Germany boasts 80 million inhabitants, while the Netherlands and Belgium boast 16.7 million and 11.2 million citizens, respectively. Croatia with a population of 4.27m is probably the benchmark for Scotland – and what a fine football nation Croatia is. Precisely because, a lot of their population actively play football. As of 2016 a total of nine Croatian players are credited as winning the Champions League: Alen Bokšić, Zvonimir Boban, Davor Šuker, Dario Šimić, Igor Bišćan, Mario Mandžukić, Luka Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Mateo Kovačić, although Šimić, Bišćan and Kovačić did not appear in the relevant Champions League finals. And what a roll-call of potential role models that is for any aspiring youngster in this footballing hotbed.

Here in Scotland, the one new variable in the equation is the role of an emergent immigrant population.

Karamoko Dembele at Celtic is following the millionaire path of Islam Feruz and these two may be a signifier of better things to come as both are precedent-setting role models (and that is despite Feruz‘s career seemingly disappearing at the speed of sound).

No question, Scotland badly needs the melting pot talents of their Poles, Somalis and Roma families, and all the other foreign nationals who have made their homes here – and not just for football, but for the betterment of the nation as a whole.

And that definitely is something Nicola Sturgeon can and should help with. Let’s keep beating the drum for an enlightened, diverse and multi-cultural Scotland. Education and Scotland’s social housing providers can play their part here too.

Aberdeen’s Alex Ferguson (left) and Dundee United’s Jim McLean (right) – Two men who lead their Scottish sides to European finals, capturing the imagination in the process.

Creating success

Miscegenation, economic boom and immigration are always good answers for football fortunes to proliferate.

The momentum of success creates hunger and expectation. It creates Souness and Dalglish, Jordan and McQueen, Sir Alex and Jim McLean, Jock Stein, The Lisbon Lions. All of them, to one degree or another were products of that 1960 European Cup Final at Hampden between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt. It was a match that shaped a generation of football people in Scotland through proximity to greatness. It inspired a legacy here in Scotland.

When the last Scottish boom came, it came from Aberdeen and Dundee United both ruled by benevolent dictatorship (Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean) and in a time of economic recession, de-industrialisation and relative slump for Rangers and Celtic. Maybe that might happen again, though a blue moon renaissance will likely emerge fully formed and unbidden, if it does.

In Glasgow, fan and media expectation and the unwieldy size of both clubs is not suited to a dynamic, visionary kind of governance. And that’s a negative for both Celtic and Rangers.

The one un-discussed factor that could help Celtic and Rangers is a route into the first team for the players they can draft in from numerous international initiatives and commercial partnerships overseas.

In that respect, Willie McNab, the International Academy Director at Celtic is an interesting guy to keep an eye on as Celtic are spreading the net to China, USA, Australia and other global territories.

In this post-Bosman era of football haves and have nots, great innovation, with or without state intervention, feels like a tough prospect. Not just for Scotland and for the Old Firm but for all aspirant football nations generally.