Should Scotland embrace football as its quintessential national sport?

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With the ‘home of golf’ being accredited to St Andrews and both shinty and curling widely recognised as distinctly Scottish creations, it’s easy to see why these three sports can stake a claim to the title of Scotland’s national sport. 

But football, which according to Brand Scotland is the country’s most popular sport, is often only perceived as being just that: a popular sport, but not a national sport.

This may be because many believe that football was not a Scottish invention. 

However, many sport historians, such as former curator of the Scottish Football Museum, Ged O’Brien, have highlighted that the passing game, the basis for world football as we know it today, was primarily developed in Scotland.

So, ahead of Scotland’s match with England later this year which will mark the Scottish FA’s 150th anniversary, is it time for Scotland to fully realise, and thereafter, promote its contribution to the development of ‘the beautiful game’?

Ticket for the world’s first international football match contested between Scotland and England. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Although it is widely considered to be England who invented modern football – since that is where the first set of rules were written in the late 19th century – it was actually the Scots who majorly developed the modern game. 

In fact, the Netflix series ‘The English Game’ sets out to imply that modern football was created in England, but ironically tells the story of Scottish footballer Fergus Suter, who brought uniquely-Scottish playing styles and collectivity to the English game, ultimately finalising its development into the sport it is today.

Graeme Brown, founder of the Hampden Collection – an organisation set up to celebrate, promote and protect the three Hampden Park’s whilst also telling the story of Scotland’s involvement in the development of modern football – says that if Scotland were to embrace football as its national sport, it could have a massive impact for not just football, but for tourism in the country.

“If it markets it properly, it’s the Mecca of football, and everyone should want to come and visit it. You have three and a half billion people playing football, and quite a lot of them want to know where we all started.

“It is like the home of golf. Why do so many Americans come to St. Andrews to play golf? Because it’s the home of golf. It needs the equivalent of what golf did for St. Andrews.”

The Hampden Collection created ‘Football’s Square Mile’ to raise awareness of Scotland’s contribution to football, pinpointing locations of historical significance to football’s development across Glasgow, whilst campaigning to make the three Hampden’s – which includes Hampden Bowling Club, Cathkin Park, and the current home of the Scotland national teams – a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Graeme Brown (right) conducting the 3 Hampden’s Walking Tour on the site of the First Hampden Park. Photo credit: Calum Clark.

“The only reason anyone knows [England invented football] is because Scotland didn’t shout hard enough. It should be shouting it from the rooftops that it’s the home of football.

“Football’s Square Mile is saying: there’s a square mile, it’s football’s square mile, it ain’t in England – it’s in Scotland.

“Wherever you go, you will find the Scottish influence, and it’s ironic that Argentina, for example, knows more about the Scottish roots of Argentinian football than Scotland does.”

It was a Scottish emigrant, Alexander Watson Hutton, who set up the football association of current world champions, Argentina, in 1891, with Hutton still revered as ‘the father of Argentine football’.

Cathkin Park: the second Hampden Park and a key component of Football’s Square Mile. Photo credit: Calum Clark.

But it isn’t just the history of the mens game in Scotland that could be promoted – it could also encompass the history of the women’s game too.

Professor Fiona Skillen, an expert on the history of women’s football in Scotland and professor in History at Glasgow Caledonian University, says that marketing football as the country’s quintessential national sport, in tandem with a promotion of the history, would be hugely beneficial for the women’s game in Scotland.

“Celebrating the history of the game and encouraging tourists to come and learn about that long history, for both the men’s and women’s game, alongside taking in matches would be a great way of promoting the game more widely.

“The first record of women playing football in Europe was in Scotland. People often assume women have only played football in Scotland in recent times, but they have played it consistently since the First World War.

“History has been used to market Scotland to the wider world for decades. We have been slow however to realise the huge potential that sporting heritage and history can have. Other places utilise their sports history to great effect – places like Wembley Stadium and the Camp Nou in Barcelona. 

“Scotland of course also has a broad diaspora which could be marketed to directly.”

So, with Scotland’s most popular sport also being a primarily-Scottish invention, should football take the crown for being the country’s true national sport? And why should it matter?

For many nations around the world, their national sport more often than not derives from that country, and as a result, often receives state funding in order to maintain its cultural significance. 

This is the case in Ireland, for example, where 44% of revenue for Gaelic games, such as Gaelic football and hurling, came from government funding in 2022, whilst in South Korea, the government ‘flag-bearing’ of Taekwondo as its national sport provided state funding to help it become a professional sport, as well as by making it more accessible.

Gaelic football, Ireland’s national sport. Photo credit: Ciaran McGuiggan.

Like in Ireland, with Gaelic football, many country’s national sport is also their most popular. In the USA, it’s American football, primarily funded by lucrative television, streaming, and marketing deals, but also partly subsidised by the US government. In Canada, it’s ice hockey, another highly lucrative sport funded by many of the same commercial outlets, whilst the Canadian government provided around $7 million to its national game for the 2022/23 domestic season.

In some countries, however, the most popular sport is dominated by an amateur/semi-professional talent pool that champions community spirit and collectivity over financially influenced approaches.

Again, Ireland is a good example, given that Gaelic football is a valuable part of Irish society, with amateur and semi-pro inter-county competitions, including the All-Ireland championship, having enhanced community-driven sport in the country since the Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) was founded in 1884.

According to the Teneo Sport and Sponsorship Index 2022, Gaelic games are the most played sport and the most popular sporting event in the country, with government subsidies helping it to maintain this status.

Similarly, football is the most played sport in Scotland, and is also the most watched according to Brand Scotland, with the nation enjoying the best of both worlds when it comes to both the professional and semi-professional game, largely by way of its rich football heritage and history.

The current Hampden Park full with 50,000 spectators as Scotland beat Spain in March, 2023. Photo credit: Calum Clark

It boasts some of the finest and most well-respected footballing establishments in the world, including the Old Firm, Aberdeen, Hearts, Hibernian, Dundee United, and many more.

But alongside Scotland’s top football clubs, there are also some of the oldest semi-professional football associations in the world, owing to the fact that modern day football was majorly developed here.

The semi-professional Highland and Lowland leagues contain some of these historic clubs, including Forres Mechanics, Clachnacuddin, East Stirlingshire and Berwick Rangers, who were all founded in the 1880s.

Lindsay Hamilton, founder of Glasgow Football Tour, thinks that with Scotland being a huge footballing country with so much history behind it, the nation needs to better embrace its contribution to the game.

“We need to capture this – Scotland’s massively a football place. For me, I think Glasgow’s the world capital of football.”

Glasgow Football Tour includes both a walking and driving tour, which Lindsay runs and coordinates on weekends. Not only does it encompass stadiums and football folklore in both north and south Glasgow, but it unearths some of Glasgow’s, and Scotland’s, greatest untold stories, highlighting just how rich its football history really is.

“In terms of the history, there’s no one that competes with us. There’s honestly no one – we’ve won.

“This is the people’s game by the way. This isn’t us being like “it should be the Scottish game” – it’s the people’s game. But you have to doff your hat to the folk that brought it.

“It’s an obligation! It’s the greatest game, the most accessible game in the world, and most of it came out of [Glasgow], which is unbelievable, and true!”

So, if Scotland was to recognise and embrace this history, could it encourage a cultural reconsideration on the importance of the sport to the generations who have lived here? Could it entice more investment into the Scottish game? Could it create an appetite for community empowering competitions, akin to Ireland’s inter-county structure, to celebrate this? And could it boost tourism? 

The Scottish Government already subsidises Scottish golf, having pledged more than £3 million to the sport in 2022 in order to “support golf events and market Scotland globally as the Home of Golf”. 

So, should the same be done with football?

It is, of course, now the most popular sport on the planet enjoyed by over 3.6 billion people, and in Scotland, there is the unique opportunity to embrace ‘the beautiful game’ as one of its own, which could aptly warrant a Scottish reinvention of how the sport can be culturally recognised, perceived, and enjoyed at all levels of profession. 

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