In a sporting world seemingly bereft of romanticism, the release of financial irons have prevented men like Stein from creating teams like the Lisbon Lions. Never again will a side composed of players all recruited from within miles of the ground ever reach European nirvana, but most Scots would have expected even their most monetarily handicapped to at least salvage a scrap of dignity.
Dignity was never the watchword for Hearts though, who lost 5-0 at home to Spurs, and while Rangers and Celtic both took two legs to be defeated, their failures are almost even more appalling.
After humiliation in Sweden, Ally McCoist’s Rangers side needed to offer disillusioned fans a boost – something they never came close to achieving; an away loss and home draw put pay to that.
The same formula of results conspired to knock out Celtic – one time champions more sheepish than anything else. Tonight’s loss in Switzerland, a far cry from Lisbon ’67.
“It’s a real low point for the Scottish game,” said SFA cheif executive Stewart Regan. An admission of defeat, followed by a statement of the sort of pomposity that epitomizes Scotland’s, and in particular Glasgow’s, naive approach to the modern European game.
“You look at some of the teams still competing, and they are the minnows of Uefa.” For the Scotland which greeted feverishly the return of Stein’s champions, denigrating rivals was a prerogative they had worked hard to deserve – for the country now listed below Iran in Fifa’s latest world rankings, the right to call others minnows has been long dissolved.
Scotland’s place alongside the big fish of European football has been usurped by other, savvier, opponents. Left behind in a maelstrom of change, Scottish football tonight find itself at its lowest ebb – its too premier clubs financially incapable of keeping up with rivals across the border, and now fast sinking below fellow competitors in nations as far a field as Sweden, Switzerland and Slovenia.
What the big wigs atop Scottish football don’t seem to understand, is that no longer is it the job of their football teams to hold the national flag proudly in a battle against the English. A different set of standards must now be applied. England no longer fear Rangers and Celtic, their attention is focused much more acutely in the direction of Spain, where the exodus of talent from the Premier League to La Liga is fast mirroring England’s steady leech of managing talent from up North.
The Scots must, for now at least, content themselves with their current position in the game – one far off that which they seem to feel God graciously endowed upon them. Rangers and Celtic are no longer realistic challengers on the European platform, lacking the sufficient talent to beat even teams from countries that hadn’t yet gained independence back in 1967.
The conundrum that a once proud footballing culture find themselves ensconced in is not one that will be solved with a band-aid of optimistic words. For all the talk of gradual improvement, patience and a long term plan, it remains unclear whether those in charge really know what they’re doing.