After qualification failures, a friendly game between two countries will provide a guess as to where the nations will go from now. Wind-whipped Pittodorie stadium in Aberdeen will host Scotland vs Netherlands in what is surely a kick-start to future campaigns.
Once flying high
The most interesting games are situated during a transition. Decisions made at this crossroad could affect countries for years, if not decades, meaning each turn is noteworthy. Seven years ago, the Netherlands drowned South Africa in a sea of orange flags, face paint and kits as they became easily one of the toughest sides to beat in the competition. Their midfield was intimidating, with de Jong and van Bommel, the enforcers, and Wesley Sneijder still in his prime and still pinned to the backpages as a perpetual transfer target.
When they qualified for the final against Spain, on any other day they could have been the victors, with a combination of Arjen Robben—squandering a one on one—and Iker Casillas staking his dominance by making save after save. Las Rojas left with the spoils, but second place was a respectable, if not heartbreaking position to take; they could leave with their heads held high, knowing that they were beaten by Spain’s, arguable, golden generation.
But from then on, it seemed that this formidable team had dissolved after an ego stroking. Total football became total failure two years later, failing to pick up any points and finishing dead last in an admittedly hard group that contained Germany, Portugal and Denmark. The blueprint was being swapped in for a newer version, with older legs starting to give in and fresher bodies needed. A false dawn under Van Gaal at the following World Cup was enough to paper over cracks, exorcising demons against Spain with a 5-1 hammering, but it has been downhill since. Three managers have helmed the ship since LVG left for Manchester United and none have cobbled together successful campaigns since 2014.
The most notable moment could be juxtaposed with the form of Robin van Persie. Mentored by van Gaal, he was a striker blessed with a ridiculous left foot and could put a nation on his shoulders. In the big games he belied his greying hair and seemed sprightly; notably scoring a diving header, which took people’s breath away, seemingly suspended forever as the ball floated over the goalkeeper. In the 2016 qualification campaign, however, he was the one to sink his country, scoring an equally accurate goal but into his own net allowing for ball trajectory and whipping a stooping and bending header away from Steklenburg.
Perhaps they were the first scalp of fellow group member, Iceland, but they failed to make third in a qualification system that famously allowed too many teams into the main tournament. Now with another failure to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia, what is the plan for them now?
“It’s the coming and going of generations,” former Netherlands and Glasgow Rangers midfielder, Ronald de Boer told BBC Scotland. In a system that used to rely on the completeness and selflessness of all of the players in the team, it seems that the Netherlands have become reliant on a select few to carry the weight.
“The likes of [Robin] van Persie, [Arjen] Robben, [Dirk] Kuyt, [Nigel] de Jong, [Rafael] van der Vaart, they were an exceptional generation, we don’t have them anymore”.
“We just have to accept that this generation has gone and it’s going to take time for that to come round again,” de Boer concluded.
Scotland are that little ‘nearly’ nation; always punching above their weight against bigger sides but not maintaining the consistency to mount legitimate campaigns. Always third, never second or first. At least, that has been the case since 1998 where they last qualified for a major tournament.
This fact has been held above their heads as their fellow UK countries took in the tan in France last year, with Scotland the only country not to qualify.
Out of a country that contains roughly five million people, it has still managed to create world class players throughout the years. Kenny Dalglish, Darren Fletcher, Gordon Strachan, and Graeme Souness played for opposite sides of Liverpool and Manchester United – with Scottish players once, surprisingly, a golden commodity like the Belgians are now. Success in other leagues translated to a similar uptick in quality for clubs. The biggest team outside of Glasgow, Aberdeen, managed to set the Scottish record by nabbing the Cup Winner’s Cup and the UEFA Supercup trophies in the 80s.
Old Firm sides, Glasgow Celtic and Rangers had become the dominant names in households. The two perpetually fighting—both literally and figuratively—for the title with each passing year, stemming from deep-seated religious roots. Every year they were expected to qualify for the Champions League and were frequently a fixture among the best, beating Barcelona or Manchester United in packed stadiums flooded with green or blue home supporters.
But now, the Old Firm also represents where Scotland is now. Whilst still undeniably the top team in the Scottish Premier League, Celtic have been running uncontested for years, with last year a total shutout of all sides. They set the record for longest unbeaten streak for a British team. Rangers, on the other hand, is controversially trying to regain dominance after a did they-didn’t they relegation and dissolution down the leagues over administrative troubles.
In Europe, Scotland lacks the clout to cut the mustard now. Like in the Netherlands, top talents are priced out or flock to the higher paying leagues at the closest opportunity. Those that do come only arrive with a stepping stone in mind (take Virgil Van Dijk for example) and it has become clear that the gap between North and South of the UK is growing by the year. In the Europa League—the best that most can afford and aim for -—Scottish sides have become known for being the whipping boys, seeing eliminations in Lithuania, Romania, Luxembourg in the first stages of the tournament.
In the national team, the dearth in Scotland-based players is reflected in frequent friendly and qualifier line-ups. Most are based in the Premier League — but not particularly always at their prime—some in the Championship and a few from Celtic F.C. Most worryingly, there is a lack of youth being blooded into the set-up, with Scotland fielding one of the oldest-aged sides in qualification campaigns. Prodigal players such as Ryan Gauld and Jack Harper have flown further afield to Portugal and Spain, respectively, with mixed results and a good handful are stuck in English youth limbo like Islam Feruz of Chelsea.
In recent years, a large portion of the squad has been composed of Scottish players by proxy: George Boyd, Jamie Mackie, Matt Phillips, Chris Martin (not that one!) and Ikechi Anya. Under recent full-time manager, Gordon Strachan, accusations of favouritism and a dinosaur mindset pervaded his tactics, punctuated by a swipe out at the lack of height in the football system after Scotland’s flailing exit from qualification.
Turning over the page
Tonight’s friendly will be a proving ground for both teams to test the waters. Under interim manager, Malky Mackay, Scotland hopes that first-timers such as Graeme Shinnie (Aberdeen), Ryan Christie (Aberdeen via Celtic), Callum McGregor (Celtic) and Jason Cummings (Nottingham Forrest) will step up in the absence of regular players. It will also be a period to test out new tactics and see what sticks against a formidable opponent.
It isn’t all rosy in the buildup to the game, however. Scotland are suffering from a shortage of players of a certain type. “Where are our problems? Centre-forward and centre-back. Bizarrely enough, also at right-back right now,”said Mackay in a recent press conference. Typical starter, Leigh Griffiths, has pulled out with a calf strain, opening up the very real possibility that the line-up will field a winger or attacking midfielder up front in the interim.
He added, “But if we think of where have we had problems in the last few years, it’s finding centre-backs and centre-forwards. Looking at the academy structure for a longer period, was it fashionable to not be a centre-back or centre-forward and be something else?”
The other issue pertains to the man in the hot seat, himself. Malky Mackay is juggling hats at the moment, originally being hired full-time to oversee Scottish youth development, but is now warming the manager’s seat on the side. In club management, he promoted Cardiff to the Premier League before being booted out by his eccentric Malasian owner. Compounding this, a series of offensive text messages were unearthed that were allegedly written by him. Hiring an interim that had to once declare, “I’m no racist, I’m no sexist, I’m no homophobe, I’m not antisemitic,” is certainly something that will factor into his chances of landing his job. With tenuous chances of being hired full-time, will that factor into the type of changes he will make? Will they be broad, or, more likely, minute to ready the boat for the next predecessor?
The Netherlands have a similar problem in the form of their manager, Dick Advokat. Since managing Sunderland at club level in 2015, he has been constantly airing his desire to retire at some point in the very near future. And now he gets his wish, these last few friendlies will bookend his career as a manager. He is a short stopgap that will hopefully stabilise the team for the moment.
Player problems are less of an issue, with a mostly full strength side named in the squad. Veteran, Wesley Sneijder of Nice is amongest Liverpool player, Georgino Wijnaldum, with a sprinkling of youth shuffled in. Matthijs de Ligt (18) probably can’t recall the 90s but is clearly talented and still lacking experience – it is hoped that he is the Netherland’s future in terms of a long-term centre-back starter. Alongside frequent Sporting Lisbon scorer, Bas Dost, a potential debut may be on the cards for Jurgen Locadia, a 24-year old PSV striker who has been biding his time.