Brilliance of Celtic only masks a wider malaise in Scotland
Remarkable victory over Barcelona will increase calls for a breakaway league as SPL descends into financial meltdown
Sunday 11 November 2012
In the space of three hours last Wednesday night Hearts announced that the club might not survive beyond this weekend, Craig Levein revealed he is taking legal advice over his sacking by the Scottish FA, and Celtic beat Barcelona. Each individual event was in itself shocking, but what does the combination of all three say about the state of the game in Scotland? In one way, very little; in another, it tells us everything.
Levein's actions can be isolated, since his record as Scotland manager was poor and even if there was a delay in the SFA's decision to remove him from his post, he will still be paid his full salary – £35,000 a month – until the end of the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, unless he finds another job. He misjudged the public mood, since whatever pockets of sympathy there may have been were quickly overcome by indignation.
The discord between Levein and the SFA is in keeping with much of the hostility that has gripped Scottish football in recent months, but it was not a consequence of those dramas. The fates of Hearts and Celtic, so divergent on a night when Barcelona were vanquished by some shrewd play and the kind of raucous atmosphere that shook the soul, are indicative of the game's underlying health.
Scottish football is in a mess. For the sake of its credibility, there was no option but to deny Rangers a place in the Scottish Premier League and force the Ibrox team to play in the Third Division this season after the public limited company that owned the club failed to come out of administration and the business and assets were sold to a new company.
Yet the game is even more imbalanced. The biggest crowds have been for Rangers' home games in the Third Division, with only a small handful of clubs in England enjoying higher gates. Rangers have also generated higher television viewing figures than any other club in Scotland.
In the SPL Celtic have dropped 12 points, but nobody expects anything other than Neil Lennon's side comfortably winning the title. The league is competitive, in the sense that Dundee are cut adrift at the bottom and Celtic will eventually run away at the top but the rest can beat one another at any given time.
Yet Hearts are on the verge of liquidation after being served with a winding-up order by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs for a £465,000 tax bill, while another £1.75m tax bill is being appealed against. If Hearts fold, other clubs are expected to follow because no bank will provide any credit.
The Sky television deal is not as generous as in previous seasons with Rangers no longer in the top flight but could be even less next year since there is a get-out clause for the broadcaster at the end of this campaign based on viewing figures.
Hearts' financial problems are historical, since the owner Vladimir Romanov has not run the club prudently for some years, but the financial consequences of Rangers' collapse has not helped them. Administration, right now, seems the best hope.
The imbalance between the Old Firm and the rest isn't healthy because no teams are ever able to compete with them, but also Scottish football restricts Rangers and Celtic. The latter's victory over Barcelona was glorious – a bold, defiant, rugged and resourceful display, even if the play itself was overshadowed by the sheer emotional turmoil of the occasion.
Celtic Park was a cacophony of joy and adulation, to such an extent that Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona manager, and other club officials marvelled at the experience. Yet Celtic's victory was underpinned by the club's fundamental values.
The team have been built on astute work in the transfer market, signing young players from under-exploited markets such as Israel and Honduras whose transfer values rise while they mature. Victor Wanyama's power and delicate touch will soon carry him straight into the upper reaches of the Premier League, while Fraser Forster, Joe Ledley, Kris Commons, Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper are all capable of joining him in England's top flight. Celtic are well run, and yet the club could be so much more.
Rangers also have potential for growth, although they have a distance to travel to catch up with their old rivals. For a time, the Old Firm discussed an Atlantic league with clubs in a similar situation, such as Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord, Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon. The idea gained traction again recently, while Celtic and Rangers continually talk in private about moving to England.
One such plan involves the Scottish leagues feeding into their English counterparts, and the case is strengthened by the financial troubles of the SPL. The European governing body Uefa have discussed a Balkan league, while a women's league in Holland and Belgium has set a precedent as a joint league being accredited by Uefa with the teams eligible to play in European competition.
Celtic's victory over Barcelona has strengthened the case for a review of European football's boundaries, but it was also a reminder of the stark contrasts of the Scottish game.
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