The Scottish men's national football team are going places. There is a buzz about them. They are on a roll as a team, getting returns in how they play and work as an unit under Steve Clarke's impressive leadership.
All this is a change from the wilderness years we have experienced since 1998 – the last World Cup we qualified for. Scotland did recently qualify for Euro 2020 (held in 2021) but this was via a backdoor system to allow also-rans to have a chance. Even that was a sign of some progress.
The advances of the Scotland team under Steve Clarke does feel significant. The team have started to play well, score decent goals from open play, and even dominate good teams such as Denmark who we beat 2-0 in 2021 and Spain who we defeated last week 2-0.
The age of decline and drift characterised by such Scotland managers as Bertie Vogts, George Burley and Craig Levein feels now firmly in the past – painful as it was. At the same time, the progress that was made by Gordon Strachan over 2013-17 should not be forgotten, providing a base on which Clarke could build.
One part of this positive picture is sadly missing. This is the absence of the Scottish men's national team from terrestrial TV. Instead, it can only be accessed via a complex, ever-changing number of pay-for-view platforms – currently Viaplay who charge £14.99 per month as a subscription. This is unlike the England national team whose games are free to watch on Channel 4, and Welsh national matches which are free on the Welsh equivalent: S4C.
When public conversation about this starts, there is often confusion and a hunt for villains. Is it the SFA? Is it UEFA: the over-arching European football authority? Is it to do with free-to-air TV authorities? Or the money which subscription platforms can throw at things? Or is it even in some way the responsibility of the Scottish Government and the nature of devolution? Or a mixture of all of the above – and more?
Several years ago, UEFA put forward the notion of central bargaining rights across Europe to supposedly increase the monetary value and negotiating power of the game. This resulted in nearly all the European football authorities buying into this – the SFA included. The English FA were the exception, continuing a long tradition of English isolation from the European and international game.
This is the origin of the argument that it is not the SFA but UEFA who are responsible for the current situation. This ignores what has been going on close to home. The English FA withheld their rights, and instead sold them and their games to ITV and Channel 4. This means that Scottish viewers are subsidising the cost of England games being shown on terrestrial TV throughout the UK.
Obviously the market and audience pull of the English game is much bigger than that of Scotland. Yet Wales – a country with a much smaller football market, audience and population – has managed to secure the rights to show the men's national team games on free-to-air TV. So something is amiss in the Scottish game, and at the minimum, needs discussion and scrutiny.
The absence of the Scottish men's football team from free-to-air TV, and instead signed away to Viaplay for the years 2024-2028, has consequences. It matters to the promotion and profile of our national game. It has an impact on our shared collective memories. And it has repercussions in the midst of a severe cost of living crisis, one which has grown more severe in recent times, but which has its roots in the decline in real terms of average earnings in the 15 years since the banking crash of 2008. Many individuals and families are worried about their outgoing costs and bills, cutting back on items like media platform subscriptions (Sky Sports, Amazon, Netflix) so watching the Scottish men's national team may be an unaffordable luxury.
It not only has consequences for people worried about their budgets. There's something a little less tangible but that could have long-term effects: the likely generational and societal impact in the absence of the Scotland team from free-to-air TV.
Football, the mantra goes, is about shared stories and memories, and how they pass down generations – from grandparent to father and mother to son and daughter. This is one of the powerful connecting stories that football has always provided, and as society has undergone dramatic economic and social dislocations in recent decades, with traditional industries decimated, and the nature of work fundamentally changed, so football has become one of the last connectors (as well as in places dividers).
This puts too much emotional investment into what is a game. And one which is increasingly, across Europe and the world, shaped by money, finance capitalism and the forces of hyper-globalisation.
The resonance and connection which football provides is being weakened and even threatened by the hiving off of the game to pay-for-view platforms. It is reducing our prospects of having shared collective memories and stories; it is diminishing us as individuals being part of something bigger than ourselves – namely a community.
The current situation not only discriminates against people worried about their budgets, it weakens the position and profile of the game. It erodes our capacity to tell each other stories; to share and feel hope, disappointment and even despair, together; and to remember and recall iconic moments of football history which are then passed down generation to generation.
Many of us have direct experience of the power of magical football moments with the men's national team. The golden generation of the Scottish men's football team of the 1970s saw Scotland beat Czechoslovakia 2-1 in 1973 and 3-1 in 1977 at Hampden Park to qualify respectively for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.
These two memorable Scottish victories were defined by powerful headed goals from Joe Jordan in both matches. The second was even more impressive – beating the current European Champions who had just defeated West Germany the previous year. Both of these matches were live on TV and thus many of their moments (and the wider atmosphere and emotions they evoked) are embedded and part of our collective footballing story – and a generational story.
The unfortunate role of the SFA: 150 years and counting
The SFA is 150 years ago this year – 150 years of claiming to be the custodian of our national game. It is not, putting it diplomatically, a record of unsullied success. Rather, it is one of narrow-minded, parochical men who have presided over the national game whilst looking after their own self-interests and self-importance. Scotland even has its own ignominious tradition of insularism and contempt for foreigners, which saw the Scots not join FIFA when it was first established in 1904, leave twice, before permanently rejoining in 1946. And then there has been its historic antagonism to the women's game, which was only unbanned in Scotland in 1974.
From 1872 to 1953, there was no Scottish football manager, but rather a SFA 'Selection Committee'. Andy Beattie was temporarily appointed when Scotland went to our first World Cup in 1954 in Switzerland. He was only allowed to take a squad of 13 rather than the usual 22 as the SFA took up places with their officials. Little surprise then that Scotland lost to the World Champions Uruguay 7-0!
It took until that famous football year of 1966 (for other reasons) for the SFA to finally make the manager a permanent full-time post. It advertised the job saying it was willing to consider appointing on a 'part-time basis': the first full-time manager being John Prentice who only lasted a few months. Looking back on the various trials and tribulations of the SFA and the men's national team, it should have been little surprise when the debacle of Argentina and the 1978 World Cup occurred, which implicated the SFA as much, if not more, than anyone else.
Today's SFA likes to think it is beyond such amateurism and ineptitude. But it really has to look long and hard about how it organises and promotes our national game. This at a time when Steve Clarke is inspiring a new generation of players and supporters, and the progess and results can be seen on the playing field.
At the moment, we have no Scottish men's football matches in free-to-air TV unless we qualify for the finals of the Euro Championship or FIFA World Cup. The games of all these finals are for now protected and have to be shown live on BBC and ITV.
To add insult to injury, the coming Scotland v England friendly at Hampden Park in September this year is being held to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the SFA. It will be a moment in history of what is the oldest international rivalry in the world, but ultimately will be a meaningless game apart from its tradition and bragging rights.
Yet because this Scotland v England match involves England, it is free-to-air on Channel 4: the only way one can watch Scotland free is if they happen to be playing 'the auld enemy' England.
What an indictment and a telling statement of the people who claim to be the custodians of our national game. The SFA, 150 years and counting, is still failing in promoting the role, place and vibrancy of our football – from players and coaching staff to generations of supporters. And in doing so, while set up as a private association, it is ultimately accountable to absolutely no-one but itself.