For Scotland fans, these are dark days. No major tournaments in 15 years tells its own, damning story, and fresh ignominy accompanied their team's latest failure, as the first European nation eliminated from the race to Brazil.
Yet amid the gloom, there has been one ray of sunshine. It has been provided by the Scots' ever-improving women’s side, whose rise from international obscurity to the world top 20 has been one of the female game’s most striking success stories.
Anna Signeul’s team have not been immune to heartbreak themselves though. Last October, a place at the UEFA Women’s EURO seemed all but assured until Spain struck in the 120th minute, with the final kick of a spirit-crushing encounter. But while such blows have flattened weaker teams, the response of Signeul's Scots has simply been to raise the bar yet further.
A look at the standings in Europe’s FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifying campaign underlines that continued improvement, with four straight wins having been racked up by an aggregate score of 20-2. Recently, Signeul’s role in that ascent was recognised when she was named on the initial ten-strong shortlist for the FIFA World Coach of the Year for Women’s Football award; “fantastic recognition," she said, "for the progress we have made as a team”.
Inspiration and evolution
Scotland's Swedish coach is, though, just as encouraged by developments in the youth ranks, with the nation's U-17s having reached the European finals and the U-19s set to compete in the elite round of qualifiers. That, she feels, is symptomatic of a change that has taken place across women’s football – indeed, across the nation as a whole – since she took charge in 2005.
“On day one, I wanted to change the whole women's game here in Scotland," she told FIFA.com. "My goal was to develop something sustainable. You can go in as national coach and just focus on short-term success with the A squad, but what we've done has been to invest in the future for women’s football in this country.
“That's why I'm so pleased at the moment because not only have we improved, but I'm sure we're going to keep on improving. We have such talented players at every age level and, crucially, there’s a new awareness in these players coming through of what is required to be an elite athlete. For me, that’s the biggest and most important difference from when I first took the job, and I think the mindset has changed across Scotland. I think it began to change with the likes of Chris Hoy at the last couple of Olympics and also with Andy Murray. Those guys have shown that Scots don’t always need to be the underdogs.”
I think the mindset has changed across Scotland. I think it began to change with the likes of Chris Hoy at the last couple of Olympics and also with Andy Murray.
These giants of cycling and tennis might have provided the inspiration, but Signeul is quick to acknowledge the other stakeholders playing key roles in women's football's rise. The Scottish Football Association represents a predictable example, but the devolved Scottish government has also invested heavily, while national media have devoted unprecedented coverage to the ongoing qualifiers. The broadcasters' reward has been a much-needed feelgood story, with Scotland having evolved from a team in which Julie Fleeting was the one and only star to an exciting side with young and talented players – most of them full-time professionals - in almost every position.
As Signeul said: “It needed other players to step up. If you have someone (Fleeting) who has scored almost 120 goals for your team leaving, and the next player behind her has 17 or thereabouts, it’s always a worry. But the players responded brilliantly, and it’s true that we’re not just relying on Kim [Little] being our new Julie Fleeting. Every player has taken on responsibility and the quality we have in different positions is really exciting.”
Signeul’s excitement and optimism is, though, tempered by an acute awareness of the challenges that lie ahead. Indeed, while Scotland currently lead their preliminary section by three points, their coach knows only too well that the team in second place remain heavy favourites to finish top. It will be June before Signeul goes up against her native Sweden for the first time in this campaign, and while divided loyalties will not be an issue, she admits that Pia Sundhage’s team were not her rivals of choice.
“The fact Sweden's my home country doesn't bother me one bit,” she said. “But my thoughts before the draw were that I would have taken anyone except Germany, France and Sweden - three sides that, for me, are still a level above the rest in Europe. Only the best eight teams qualify for Canada, and to get to the play-offs you need to be one of the four best runners-up – and even then you need to be lucky in the draw and play four more games. It’s going to be really, really tough. But we’ll give it our best shot. By the way we have started, we have at least given ourselves a chance.”
Focus on the physical
The strides made over recent years should at least ensure that Scotland go into the meeting with Sweden unburdened by the inferiority complex that previously accompanied games against the big guns. Signeul is also keen to narrow the one major gap she perceives to still exist, and that process will involve some hard, physical toil for her players over the coming six months.
“What we need to improve on before we play Sweden is our physical attributes,” she explained. “The mentality, the tactics and the technical side of the game... I’m not worried about those. We’re in a better position to compete in those respects now. But we need to be strong and fast enough to match the best teams, and that’s not just about running fast – it’s about playing the game fast.
“We did a comparison with the World Cup year in 2011 because some great stats came out from that. If you looked at the number of sprints that, say, Abby Wambach or Lotta Schelin make during a game and how fast and long the sprints were, the comparison to our Scottish players showed that we weren’t even at half the level of these top players. That was something we knew we needed to fix, and we’ve started along that road. There is still some way to go though and we’ll be working very hard over the next few months to get the players to where we want them to be.”
Where everyone in Scotland wants them to be, of course, is at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. And while Canada 2015 remains an aspiration rather than an expectation, Signeul’s ability to translate small steps into massive improvement ensures that her team cannot be written off.