Desmond Kane

Solemn Scotland follow Hungary’s descent into oblivion

Desmond Kane

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Living in the past remains a dangerous business. There is little currency to be gleaned from poring over the golden years. Unless your name is David Bowie.

Scotland supporters may think their team will suddenly wake up from a self-induced coma at some stage, but being enshrined in international football's purgatory can be a lengthy ordeal. It already is.

The most worrying aspect for Scotland is that the malady lingers on, a comatose state where there is no bottoming out.

Scotland have not visited a major tournament since the 1998 World Cup finals in France. When Brazil 2014 unfurls itself next summer, they will not have attended such a clan gathering for some 16 years. The earliest chance to reintroduce themselves comes when France, somewhat ironically, host the European Championships in 2016.

With the Euros being increased from 16 teams to 24, Scotland would have felt they had a better-than-even money chance of reaching the finals. That was before they embarked upon this wretched campaign to reach Brazil.

With two draws and four straight defeats - plus a loss to Spain in their final Euro 2012 qualifier - Scotland are in the midst of their worst run of competitive results in the country's 141-year history.

They are also officially the first side from Europe who can no longer qualify for the finals. Mathematically, traditional fodder such as Andorra, Luxembourg and San Marino are not yet out of the equation.

When men like the Liechtenstein goalkeeper Peter Jehle are turning out in tabloids across the border to offer their condolences, you have become lost in a moment comparable to the scene where Ewan McGregor's Renton character slides down a toilet in Trainspotting searching for a couple of opium suppositories. It is grim up North.

Scotland lost to England 2-1 over two legs in a Euro 2000 play-off and the Netherlands (6-1) ahead of Euro 2004. But there has been a general decline apart from almost upsetting the norm when they finished third behind Italy and France despite usurping the French home and away - returns that catapulted the Scots to a misleading 13th in the world rankings - in failing to reaching Euro 2008.

A number of Scotland coaches have come up short, ground down by an unforgiving media and unrealistic expectations amid a smallish player pool that does stand up to inspection in classier foreign climes.

Craig Brown led the Scots to Euro ’96 and France ’98, but abdicated after Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup finals proved elusive. Berti Vogts, Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley and Craig Levein have sampled similar heat, some more than others.

If one thinks this is a ruinous state of affairs coming from the land of Sir Alex Ferguson, Denis Law, Danny McGrain, Jim Baxer, Graeme Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Jimmy Johnstone, amid a rash of slick and wonderfully colourful club sides, you would be right.

But pause for a second. And consider Hungary's plight.

Hungary and Scotland are natural soulmates in soiled ambition. The Hungarians were nicknamed 'The Magical Magyars' because of their success in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a country who won three Olympics, were beaten finalists in the 1938 and 1954 World Cup finals and finished third in the 1964 Euros.

They are celebrated because of Ferenc Puskas, a roving forward with Real Madrid who remains one of the game’s true mythical figures. Ferencvaros striker Florian Albert was named Hungary’s only European footballer of the year in 1967. A long time ago.

The national team have not been anywhere near a major finals since checking out of the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico amid some miserable scenes, including a 6-0 walloping by the old Soviet Union.

In a year when Bowie was appearing in the children's movie, Labyrinth, Hungary became lost in one.

For a nation of almost 10 million football lovers, the wilderness years encompass six World Cup finals and six Euros. Scotland are getting there slowly, but surely. Or surly. Brazil 2014 will be a fourth World Cup finals to pass them by. Four Euros have come and gone.

Scotland invented passing football, Hungary were lauded for laying the groundwork for Total Football. Scotland sunk as low as 88th in the world rankings some eight years ago, Hungary delved into 87th in 1996.

The similarities continue. Scotland could yet finish a qualifying section bottom of their group without a win. Hungary sensed a similar sensation finishing sixth in a group of seven in the Euro 2008 qualifiers, managing to lose to perennial plankton Malta along the bleak path to the nether-regions of the international game.

Scotland tried former Germany coach Vogts, Hungary failed with his 1990 World Cup-winning captain Lothar Matthaus. There is only so much one bloke can conjure up with a carcass of a team.

There appears to be various reasons for Scotland's departure from being a country that reached five straight finals between 1974-1990. A country who once viewed failure as losing in the opening phase of such events.

With the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia, there has come a raft of extra qualifying games against a new breed of tetchy, technical and durable teams who offer up a whole host of issues in trying to engineer paths through a qualifying group. Ask England about Montenegro and their 660,000 population.

Scotland have had major problems with two of them in this doomed qualifying section in drawing with Macedonia at Hampden Park and drawing at home and losing 2-0 away on Tuesday to a Serbian side as tough as teak and run by a nationalistic general Siniša Mihajlović, a man who looks as if he would be handier with a Broomhandle Mauser than a football.

A lack of investment in schools football, poor basic infrastructure and cost of training facilities, rising obesity rates, a drug culture, rising unemployment, a brain drain, a league recently overrun by poor foreign imports and people having more dispensable income to shy away from the national sport in their leisure time are some or all of the issues to directly impact upon the performance of the national side.

Scotland once produced players from impoverished backgrounds learning skills on the street, but kids are likely to be advised to stay away from streets these days in case they run into a 'nonce'. Computer games and keeping up with Facebook and Twitter are more important than keepy-uppy. Grim stuff.

Hungary could yet achieve a play-off place for the finals. They are seven points behind Group D leaders the Netherlands, but one in front of third-placed Romania and four ahead of Turkey, who they drew 1-1 with in Istanbul this week. They have four games to keep alive their hopes of ending 28 years of hurt.

For Scotland, there is only time for reflection and a period of contemplation for new manager Gordon Strachan as he tries frantically to apply some fresh healing hands to festering 16-year-old wounds.

But just when you think it can’t get any worse, it could. Scotland face the prospect of being drawn from pot five for the European Championship qualifiers. Unless Scotland can produce against Croatia, Belgium and Macedonia in Group H before the year is out, those gaping lacerations could yet be consumed by vinegar.

Incidentally, David Bowie's latest offering is titled Where Are We Now? Strachan is the latest figure to find out.

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