By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 13, 2013) US Soccer Players – If you don’t follow the random SPL games occasionally available on American television, you might think that the SPL is the same as its always been. Two strong teams battling it out against each other only to disappoint in European competition.
That plot changed when Rangers went into administration and reformed in the lowest division. Directly impacting the careers of Carlos Bocanegra, Alejandro Bedoya, and Maurice Edu who had no choice but to find clubs not playing in Scotland’s bottom tier, new Rangers did as expected and started the climb back up through the divisions. They’re already up by 14 points in League One, the third level of Scottish soccer.
Meanwhile, Celtic stick to the script in the Premier League. Last season, they won by 16 points taking the SPL’s only spot in the Champions League. They’re currently bottom of Group H with Barcelona, Milan, and Ajax ahead of them. Unlucky there with the draw, the second Champions League in a row they’ve been in the same group as Barcelona. In 2012-13, Celtic advanced in second-place, shutout 5-0 by Juventus in the Round of 16.
It’s that old Scottish problem in the modern era of European soccer. Celtic might be the last big name standing among the Scottish clubs, but they’re still struggling to mesh domestic dominance with success in Europe. The money simply isn’t there in Scottish soccer, and the risk/reward of European soccer favors clubs from bigger leagues.
That ‘bigger league’ designation might flatter smaller circuits in France and Portugal, but it’s too much of a stretch to include Scotland. The Scottish Premier League doesn’t see the same level of funding from foreign interests or the interest in general outside of a small geographic area. The attempts to remedy that through merging with other smaller European countries to form a more viable league or putting the big SPL clubs in England’s league structure never took. Scotland isn’t Wales. Their domestic league offers enough support for multiple levels of fully professional teams. What it doesn’t offer is the cash required to regularly factor in European competition.
For all the fun the rest of the SPL had while watching Rangers fall, part of that story was a working critique of the Scottish professional system. It took awhile for those mainly interested in sticking it to Rangers to see the broader problem and begin to respond. The proposal for a reorganization of the Scottish professional game that created the new Scottish Professional Football League is a product of committee, stakeholders at cross-purposes, and unlikely to offer much in the way of improvement. You could say the same of the various plans put in place to strengthen the game since the Scottish version of the Premier League breakaway.
What makes Scottish club soccer such a problem are the obvious constraints. It’s a small country of 5.3 million. Glasgow, where the United States National Team is preparing for Friday’s friendly, is a city of just under 600,000 expected to support the Scottish game’s two biggest clubs that regularly draw over 50,000 per game. To put that in a US perspective based solely on population, that would be like expecting Milwaukee, Wisconsin to fully support two National Football League teams.
Edinburgh, at just over 450k, can’t match the support for its two Premier League teams, with one of them at negative points at the bottom of the Premier League table after entering administration. Dundee, the fourth-largest city in Scotland at 144k, once supported two topflight clubs only to see one of them slide into the second division, rebranded as the Scottish Championship. Adding in Aberdeen, 3rd largest in population at just under 200k, and that’s it for Scottish cities with populations of over 100,000. To return to our American perspective, Kenosha, Wisconsin would be the 5th-largest city in Scotland by about 25k residents.
Even doubling up on clubs in three of those four Scottish cities with over 100k, there’s not enough of a population base to support enough successful topflight clubs drawing the kind of attendance, players, and prestige that carries with it the owners, sponsorship, and television money we see in England.
Part of the problem for Scotland is even though the trophy normally ends up in Glasgow, once upon a time there was at least the impression that the league worked all over the topflight. There were viable clubs, feeding a competitive National Team that also relied on elite players starring in England. It wasn’t just players, of course. There’s a long lineage of Scottish managers doing well running elite English clubs.
All of that changed, and it wasn’t recent. The expectations of what it means to be a successful league of successful clubs in European soccer shifted noticeably in the 1990s and left Scotland noticeably behind. The leadership of Scottish soccer continues to take a reactive approach with relatively minimal risk, creating pretty much what you’d expect.
There’s a way of looking at the Scottish professional club game and seeing missed opportunity and the potential for a viable league. Unfortunately, it would mean those running struggling clubs to vote themselves out in pursuit of the greater good. That’s not likely to happen anywhere, much less in Scotland. Where that leaves the Scottish league structure is no better off than it was a decade ago or a decade before that. It doesn’t require two super clubs, or even the one, to make that point. But hey, nicely done with the new logo.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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