Independence nay

Scotland opted against independence from the United Kingdom on Friday, and I considered what impact the referendum could (and would) have had on football in the country… (日本語版はこちらです: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/09/20/post49522/)

Football Channel,  September 21st, 2014

In the early hours of Friday morning (UK time) it was announced that a majority (55.3%) of the Scottish population had voted against independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The union between Scotland and England began on May 1st 1707, when the Parliament of Great Britain was formed. The intervening 300 years have, as you’d expect of such near-neighbours, had their ups and downs – the historian Tim Stanley suggesting that, “England and Scotland have always been like jealous brothers, full of boiling resentment and given to violent fights” – and in October 2012 things reached a head when it was agreed that a referendum would be held to decide whether Scotland would leave the United Kingdom (which also comprises England, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

The day of reckoning was set as Thursday 18th September, 2014, and the choice was quite simple; one six word question to which there were only two possible answers:

Q. Should Scotland be an independent country?

A1. Yes

A2. No

The debate divided the nation of 5.2 million (around 4 million of whom are eligible to vote), with the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns infiltrating every aspect of Scottish society – including, of course, the football stadiums.

Unsurprisingly supporters of the ‘Old Firm’ clubs Rangers and Celtic were among the most vocal in that arena. For many Rangers fans the club’s identity is bound up with that of Great Britain – it is no accident that their kit is red, white, and blue – while Celtic, as a club with ties to Ireland, traditionally lines up in the opposing corner.

Although both sets of fans – who share an intense and often violent rivalry – did partake in public displays of which side of the fence they were on, displaying ‘Vote No’ (to remain part of Britain) or ‘Vote Yes’ (to become independent) banners at games, there weren’t any reported instances of the situation getting out of hand. This, to Japan Times football writer Andrew McKirdy, was an interesting aspect of the referendum.

“The standout thing, for me, has been that this has been such a mature debate,” he told me a couple of days before his friends and family back home took to the polls. “People who ordinarily wouldn’t have the slightest interest in politics have been engaging with the issues, reading white papers, and discussing the pros and cons.”

Part of the reason for the considered way in which the nation conducted the referendum was, in McKirdy’s opinion, because Scotland – regardless of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ outcome – already has its own identity, particularly when it comes to football.

“The thing that makes Scottish independence different is that Scottish football already has its independence. It has its own national team and football league that is entirely separate from England. Often with independence there is a huge surge in national pride – as with Croatia, for example – but in Scotland there wouldn’t even be that as we already have our own national team.”

That autonomy meant that even if the nation had gone for a ‘Yes’ majority the impact on the domestic game wouldn’t have been especially far-reaching. Some issues would have needed resolving though, particularly if a newly-independent Scotland had experienced difficulties joining the European Union (EU).

As part of the United Kingdom Scotland enjoys EU membership, which means that Scottish clubs are able to sign players from and sell players to other EU nations with relative ease. Players signed from outside the EU, however, are subject to more stringent visa demands – currently, for example, the FA stipulates that English clubs’ non EU players must have played at least 75% of their country’s games in the previous two years, and that the nation must be ranked in the top 70 in the world (there are suggestions this may be changed to the top 50).

Yokohama, October 2009

If Scotland wasn’t part of the EU then it would have become more difficult for Scottish players to move to clubs in EU countries, and the number of Scottish players in the Premier League and Football Leagues would likely have dropped steadily.

While many assumed that Scotland would find entry into the EU a mere formality, however, McKirdy wasn’t convinced, citing the concerns of other European nations hesitant to encourage breakaways.

“It’s not guaranteed [that Scotland would automatically be accepted into the EU], as Spain may have a veto and block it,” he said. “The Catalan and Basque regions want independence so the Spanish government won’t want Scotland to become independent so easily.”

Indeed, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – not wanting the Catalan independence movement, which has also been gaining momentum of late, to take encouragement from an independent Scotland – made it clear that the nation would not have found an easy passage into the EU were it to leave the United Kingdom, suggesting that the process could take years and that Spain may raise objections.

While being barred from the EU would have had far-reaching implications for Scotland at large, there may actually have been some benefits for the domestic leagues in Scotland if the ‘Yes’ vote had prevailed. Angus MacLeod, who runs the Japanfooty.com website, pointed out, for instance, that more Japanese players may have been able to complete transfers to the nation where Shunsuke Nakamura became a cult hero.

“Just now it is very difficult for Scottish clubs to sign talented players from countries like Japan,” he said. “Hiroki Yamada spent some time on trial at Celtic last season, and would almost certainly have been an excellent addition to the club, but the move never materialized. I also wonder if that was what dissuaded them from moving for Yuki Otsu in 2012, after openly declaring an interest.”

While that avenue remains closed, however, there is one other footballing aspect which may well crop up again now that Scotland has decided to remain a part of the UK; the Great Britain football team.

At London 2012 a combined side competed for the first time in 52 years, although no Scottish players were included in the squad, with the 18 comprising of 13 Englishmen and five Welshmen.

“A lot was made of the fact that Scottish players didn’t feature in the Team GB Olympic squad for London 2012, but I’m not sure it was all that surprising,” MacCleod said. “The SFA repeatedly made it very clear that they were not keen on the concept, and, although Scots are (somewhat surprisingly, perhaps) generally supportive of Team GB in other disciplines, football is seen as something quite different, given the long history between the two nations on the pitch.”

Concerns about their federations being able to remain independent were frequently raised by both the Scottish and Northern Irish associations (and, for a time, the Welsh FA) ahead of the Olympics as they were concerned that FIFA would demand that Great Britain also compete in its competitions, instead of the four countries playing separately.

It was also suggested, however, that this was a convenient excuse with there being very few, if any, players good enough from either country to make the team.

It is unclear whether a Great Britain team will be entered for any future Olympic tournaments, but if Scotland had voted for independence then it would have been free to enter on its own. Having voted ‘No’ that option is no longer available though, meaning there is still potential for the friendly rivalry with its neighbours to rumble on as Rio 2016 moves into sight.


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