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Spiers on Sport: the World Cup finals - an alien land for Scotland

It has been disconcerting, even after all these years of qualifying failure by Scotland, to hear people in my country ask this week: "So, who are you going to root for in the World Cup?"

On the eve of these 20th finals in Brazil it is worth lamenting again the lost generation of Scotland football fans who will look out on this international football festival with a natural sense of detachment.

"Detachment" is probably putting it politely. The Scots these days truly look upon a World Cup summer as a foreign land - a place they neither know nor feel welcome in. The land of Hughie Gallacher, Denis Law, Jim Baxter and Billy Bremner is now firmly denoted as a dead-beat, an outcast.

It horrified me, in a conversation earlier this week, to think of Scottish kids born in, say, 1992, who are now 22-years-old and in love with football, but who have no conception of what it is to watch their country in a World Cup finals.

France '98, the last time Scotland participated, probably came too early for the '92 generation - they would be just six-years-old. In their eyes - and for thousands upon thousands of Scottish fans - the World Cup is a grand occasion for which we are not worthy.

I can especially relate to this because I can remember, as a wee kid at school, the sheer excitement of Willie Ormond taking Scotland to the 1974 finals in what was then West Germany.

I was in Primary four at the time, and I was beside myself. We did projects on Germany, we studied the cities where the games would be played, and we created a giant frieze in the classroom of many of the star Scotland players of the time: Law, Joe Jordan, Bremner, Peter Lorimer and the rest.

The memory of that childhood activity remains strong, not least because, unlike more recent generations of Scotland fans, 1970s Scottish kids would grow up with Scotland seemingly in ownership of a divine right to play in every World Cup: in 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986 and 1990.

The 1994 World Cup in America, we thought, was a mere aberration in the order of the universe. Scotland failed to qualify but duly returned at France 98 for its sixth appearance in the last seven finals.

The sequence provided a view of Scotland which we almost took for granted: a small nation, but strong and talented, forever to be found among the big boys.

Then the disintegration set in. The rot started. In eastern Europe they still view the collapse of Hungary, once a powerhouse of world football, only to become an abject also-ran, as startling. Hungary has not qualified for any international football finals in 28 years.

Well, Scotland now has a taste of that, having gone through 16 painful years of our own non-qualification.

There is one vivid memory from France '98 which, with hindsight, would offer a horrifying glimpse of the barren years ahead. It occurred on the night of June 23 and has subsequently been seen to be very revealing.

Scotland played Morocco that evening in our final Group A fixture and were roundly humped 3-0. I was there and I remember the build-up to that game: there was a breezy confidence in the Scottish media and around the Scotland camp that we might get a result against the North Africans.

The shifting winds in football were lost on us. Morocco, it turned out, were far better. Scotland was in decline while other, less lauded football nations were improving. In fact, what was starting to happen was that we were falling off the pace in international football - as the next 16 years following France '98 would confirm.

That night in Saint Etienne, when Scotland goalkeeper Jim Leighton got his feet caught in the rigging of his goal as the shots flew past him, few of us knew of the wasteland ahead. You could never have convinced any of us in the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard that we wouldn't be back in a World Cup finals in a generation. As with Hungary, it still seems like a national blasphemy.

So here we are today, with young Scots of the new football age rooting for an Italy, a Germany or a Spain as the 2014 World Cup looms. I'm not against the globalisation of football, and how our young kids today have a knowledge of the world game. That aspect is to be admired.

It is the recurring absence of Scotland from these tournaments that remains a wounding reality. Being there was once taken for granted. Now not being there is the norm.

Like many Scots, I'll watch this World Cup with interest, and I'll enjoy it. But I'll once more feel twinges of both nostalgia and regret.

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