The future of Scottish football sits on Celtic’s shoulders.
Following a catastrophic set of qualifying results which saw all four Scottish entrants dismissed from continental competition, Celtic were handed a reprieve when UEFA (rightfully, in my opinion) expelled FC Sion from the Europa League tournament. The Parkhead side replaced the team that knocked them out and now face Atletico Madrid, Udinese, and Stade Rennais in the group stage. If Celtic can put together a decent set of results, then Scotland’s European ranking will rise, aiding Scottish teams in Europe in future years.
But for the sake of Scottish football, Celtic have to lose.
I don’t say this because I am a bitter Rangers fan, desperate to see our oldest rivals fail anywhere, everywhere. Nor do I say this because I am an astute Rangers fan, wanting Celtic to miss out on the financial rewards of European success. I say this only because I am a rational football-loving Scotsman.
Let me explain.
When Scottish teams do well in Europe, Scotland’s “country coefficient” rises. This coefficient is a number calculated by UEFA based on a five-year history of each nation’s performance in European competition; it is used to determine how many teams from each country are given spots in the Champions League and Europa League and at which stages of the tournaments they enter. A higher ranking means more places are available and teams enter in later rounds of the tournament.
Because Celtic and Rangers each had some strong performances in Europe during the last decade, the Scottish champion has often had direct access to the honey pot that is the Champions League group stage. Until this season, our runner-up could get there, too, if they won a couple of qualifiers.
All well and good, you say; only fair to reward good performance. And you’d be right, looking at it from that perspective.
But let’s look at the main problem with the Scottish league today: the grotesque imbalance of wealth in the game that has eliminated competition for the title. Some would say this has been the main problem for over a century, but it has certainly amplified in the last couple of decades. The Old Firm now account for roughly two-thirds of the entire revenue in Scottish football; each of the Glasgow giants has multiples of the revenue of any of their nominal “challengers”.
Scottish success in Europe only makes this worse. Rangers earned €18.5m in TV revenue alone from the Champions League last season, which is roughly the same as the total annual revenue of Hearts and Hibs combined. The Ibrox club made millions more from ticket sales, corporate boxes, and sponsorships.
So if Celtic do well in Europe, Scotland could win back the runner-up’s right to enter Champions League qualification. But if Celtic do badly, not only would that qualifying spot go to someone from Cyprus or Bulgaria or Switzerland, but our champion would have to play two qualifying rounds instead of one – increasing their chance of getting knocked out in a pre-season banana-skin fixture.
Without access to UEFA’s most lucrative tournament, the financial gap between the Old Firm and the rest of the field narrows. With more risk around Champions League qualification, messrs Whyte and Lawwell will be less likely to open their respective biscuit tins for a transfer deadline panic buy. Without a reliable shot at playing the likes of Barca, Milan, and Man U, players will choose Prague over Parkhead, Geneva over Govan. There’ll be no Foster or Bartley on loan, no Jelavic or Izaguirre in the SPL’s shop window for a year or two.
It won’t happen overnight, but gradually the gap will shrink. Someday, someone else might win the league.
Changing the size of the league won’t do it, quotas of foreign players are illegal, and the English don’t want the Old Firm. Dundee United, Hearts, and Rangers did their bit – now we need Celtic to save Scottish football.
All together now: lose, Celtic, lose.