Why Can’t We Be Like the Vatreni?

A man who won't like the tone of this article.

There’s been a lot of analysis flying around both the internet, television, newspapers and radio (commonly known as the media) about the state of Scottish football and the inevitable trail of excuses for the miserable result against Lithuania. From BBC Scotland who went so far out of their way to have us believe that we actually won nil-nil to the Guardian who have all but decided that we’re out. Possibly the quality of punditry in Scottish football is a topic for another article as we’d likely be here for another 20,000 words; most of which would be expletives but suffice to say that they offered many opinions both positive and negative but no solutions.

Listening to BBC Radio Scotland’s ‘Your Call’ on Saturday evening (I know; I get exactly what I deserve) in which a gentleman blamed World Cup-winning England manager Alf Ramsey for killing Scottish football. Not sensible but, as this article will suggest, everyone’s entitled to their opinion. The general consensus is that Scotland are lacking in a couple of ‘flair players’ to come in and really change a game. It was also widely noted that the finest attacking presence that we had on Friday night was right back Alan Hutton. While I’m not quite sure what that says about our midfield, it should cry out that we’re not Brazil and to therefore rely on the South American method of having wing-backs bombing forward (when we actually use wingers) is preposterous.

Could this be Scotland's most creative midfielder?

I’ve now sat for the last 20 minutes solid trying to think of one player who fits into the category of a ‘flair’ player. I even had a quick look to see if Mauro Zárate‘s granny was Scottish. Unfortunately she wasn’t and I’m now left with only the likes of Charlie Adam, who had the ability to almost single-handedly carry Blackpool into the Premier League but has been consistently overlooked despite arguably being of a far better quality than many of the midfield who started the Lithuania game. Still though, Adam has the traditional traits of a Scottish footballer- grit and determination. He’s got heart. We bloody love a bit of heart, don’t we?

I’ll tell you something though, going into the game against Liechtenstein, no matter what changes Craig Levein makes and regardless of the result Scottish football needs a role model to try and drag it out of the mire and towards something resembling a real footballing nation. Make no mistake, dear readers, we’re a joke. While we’re laughing at England’s inability to perform at the World Cup we’re losing to Wales.

While listening to ‘Your Call’ 90% of the thoughts on how to improve Scottish football revolved around how Spain- and more specifically Barcelona- do things. They have kids who are taught to play the game as opposed to play by winning tackles and… you guessed it… playing with a bit of heart as even I (as a useless, overweight, piss-poor excuse for a Goalkeeper/Left Back) was taught to do.

You see, we need to look at it from another point of view. Spain is a country with a population of more than 40 million people and this is a common excuse of the Scottish football media. “We just don’t have the population to make it viable”. That’s true but then again, looking at Spain (current no. 1 in the FIFA rankings) when we languish in 41st place (six places behind Gabon & two behind Peru) is ridiculous. We need to be looking at a footballing nation with similar credentials to ourselves.

Step forward Croatia. For those of us not in the know Croatia is actually a far smaller country than Scotland and despite having been an independent nation for only twenty years have managed to develop a truly incredible footballing heritage in that short time. Croatia sits comfortably at no. 14 in the FIFA world rankings despite having a population of only 4.5 million (almost a million less than Scotland) and only around 135,000 registered footballers, of whom three-quarters are under the age of 19.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2007 the head of Croatia’s youth development, Martin Novoselac said:

“The most important thing is taking care over technique and making steady progress. Our boys do not play in real competitions until they are 12 or 13, and even then the result is not everything. Creativity is what matters. We are always teaching them to be creative. They will know how to shoot, play one touch and dribble. But choices are left to them. You can practise for 100 years, but if you don’t have the right feeling it’s no good.”

Young players in Scotland are taught to fight for the ball and to make sure that they show heart and passion (yes, there it is again). Kids with any talent will likely be thrown straight into full-sized pitches and taught to run and keep running until they’re on the brink of collapse. Creativity is mangled out of kids by the footballing system in which they grow up but in Croatia they have the right attitude. An attitude which has created an amazing number of flair players in recent years.

Callously ignoring the incredible talent of Davor Šuker and his ilk of the 1990s is preposterous as this former Yugoslav republic finished third in the World Cup in 1998. An incredible achievement for their golden generation. However, since then they have qualified for 3 out of the 4 World Cups they have been eligible to enter whereas Scotland have only managed to make it to 1 out of those 4 competitions. Perhaps it is time to look at the current Croatian youth setup and take some lessons from them.

As creative as Charlie Adam?

After all this is a team which is blessed with flair players right across their midfield. Of course they have the anchoring holding players like Vukojević of Dinamo Kiev and Pokrivač of Red Bull Salzberg but one can even see by the calibre of clubs whom they play for that it is Croatia’s flair players who are by far and away the stars of the show.

Take for example the combination of Niko Kranjčar & Luka Modrić of Spurs as well as Danijel Pranjić of Bayern Munich who are playing at top European clubs and having their talent nurtured by massive clubs. We have Darren Fletcher playing for Manchester United but the recent bulk-buying of Scottish players by Middlesbrough as well as Scottish club’s calamitous displays in Europe must show that the quality of footballers being brought through in Scotland are not of a quality to compete with the products of Croatia’s youth football.

If Pranjić and Kranjčar, who usually play on the right and left wing respectively, came up against our wingers from Friday night (Barry Robson & Steven Naismith) they would likely be embarrassed off the park. Croatian kids are brought up to be able to show their abilities by not playing competitively until they are in their early teens. There is surely too much focus on the competitive and fighting side to the game in Scotland and naturally talented players are not allowed to show their skills to change a game because of the hugely physical nature of youth football in Scotland.

We should always remember that the cream will rise to the top in every position. Given the right encouragement, Scottish flair players will come out of the woodwork and other players with less of a ‘twinkle-toes’ disposition will find a place for their talent in other positions. Scotland needs coaches who are willing to take the difficult road and bring these players on in order to give us a fighting chance on the World and European stage but without that then we’re always going to be less like Croatia and more like… err… well…. Scotland. It’s time to nail our colours to the mast and stand together in our drive and determination to turn Scotland into a true footballing powerhouse*.

*Or at least top 25 in the world.

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