International Blether: Scotland and the Denmark Question

From Brian Laudrup, through Ebbe Skovdahl to Tommy Gravesen, Scottish football has been graced by many Great Danes over the last 20 or so years. In this time, Scotland have failed (until recently) to qualify for any international tournaments or make any real impact upon the international football stage. Our Viking cousins however, since 1998 (Scotland’s last appearance at a major tournament) have appeared in World Cups in 2002 (last 16) and 2010 (group stage) as well as the European Championships in 2000 (group stage), 2004 (quarter finals) and 2012 (group stage).

This track record, along with the presence of Danish footballers at top clubs across Europe on a regular if not constant basis – for example at the time of writing Denmark’s squad boasts players from Barcelona, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Tottenham, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig – marks Denmark out as being a strong and highly competitive European football nation.

Scotland have drawn Denmark in their qualifying group for the 2022 World Cup and as such, will soon be tested against this array talent and football knowhow. Scotland have a favourable head to head record with the Danes, with 10 victories and 6 losses chalked up. The most recent meetings (International Friendlies) ended in Scotland victories (2-1 in 2011 and 1-0 in 2016) and so there would appear to be some promising historical omens for Scotland fans to take some hope from.

The reality is however likely more different. The current incarnation of the Danish team, within a competitive environment, has proven to be strong – dispatching teams including England and Iceland in the recent Nations League competition. A team to beware of therefore, notwithstanding historical success for the Scots. With the competitive record of late and squad lists including players at the top table of European football, against Scotland’s own squad list make up of less known players from clubs like Motherwell, QPR, Aberdeen or Derby County there is also the argument that Scotland should be looking “up” at these opponents.

Taking a step back however, should Scotland be aiming to be equals of the likes of Denmark? Is this possible? Or is it right that Denmark are accepted as being ahead of Scotland at this level?

Both countries are located in northern Europe, with populations sitting just above 5 million. In this regard therefore, there is a broad comparison to be made – both are able to select players from a roughly equal pool, who grow up playing in broadly similar climates. Both are also bordered by bigger countries (England and Germany) with larger club sides, a richer league system and so both face challenges of losing young talent to neighbouring leagues and also benefit from the advantages of having these leagues so close by in terms of player and squad development.

While both Scotland and Denmark have bigger, stronger neighbours, both also have their own relatively successful leagues, each comprised of 12 top flight teams. As an initial overview therefore, both Scotland and Denmark appear to be working from an almost identical palette of materials, yet with widely differing results.

Looking closer at the leagues, both have clusters of clubs around the largest cities: Brondby, FC Copenhagen, Lyngby BK and Nordsjaelland clustered around Denmark’s capital and most populous city Copenhagen; whereas Scotland have Celtic, Rangers, St Mirren, Hamilton and Motherwell clustered around it’s most populous city of Glasgow. Both of these cities have similar populations also, sitting somewhere in the region of 650,000 inhabitants each. There are therefore plenty options for young players to play and join clubs in and around these cities, with enough alternative choices to in theory seek to ensure that limited numbers of special talents slip through the nets. In terms of the distribution of top clubs within the countries themselves, the longest drive between clubs in Denmark would be somewhere around 4 hours 10mins (Nordsjaelland to Aalborg) whereas the trip from Kilmarnock to Ross County would be just below this at 3hrs 40mins. Again therefore, the broad geography in terms of talent pools, access to clubs and baseline population to work with is all broadly similar.

Some differences do begin to appear when looking at the finances and wealth of clubs in the top leagues of Scotland and Denmark however. It is a well known fact that Celtic and Rangers have long dominated the Scottish football landscape, the Glasgow giants being the most well known Scottish Clubs who, aside from a period in the 1980’s with strong Aberdeen and Dundee United sides, have essentially won the majority of trophies on offer throughout Scottish football history. Taking figures from internet sources on market value of clubs and wage bills (sources including transfermarkt.com), the dominance of the Glasgow giants can be appreciated – it is noted that these are not detailed financial figures, but they do offer a consistent baseline from which to compare. What this shows is that both Glasgow clubs essentially make up around 63% of the market value of the league between them and indeed Celtic’s listed Market Value on €103.15 Million is only €1 Million less than the combined Market Value of the 10 other clubs. Rangers’ market value of €82.77 Million is also some €66 Million higher than the next highest (Hibs at €16.16). The league and dominance or power within this is therefore heavily skewed towards Celtic and Rangers both in terms of history but also in terms of financial clout and influence.

The story in Denmark is less drastic, only 38.2% of the total market value of the top league clubs is taken up by the wealthiest pair (FC Midtjylland and FC Copenhagen) whereas there is only a €10 Million shortfall between FC Copenhagen’s value of €36.55 Million and Brondby’s €26.55 Million. As a broad comparison therefore, the Danish league is less heavily skewed and there is less of a gulf in finance between the clubs. That said, the smallest clubs in both leagues have broadly similar values – AC Horsens and Hamilton with values of €6.73 Million and €6.48 Million respectively. But there are still disparities which mean that based on these figures, Scotland’s 3rd most valuable club would only be 6th most valuable in Denmark.

These disparities and the inequality within the Scottish league is magnified when you combine all of the figures for comparison. The average value of the Danish league clubs based on these figures sits at €18.48 Million; compared to €24.24 Million in Scotland. As such therefore, Scotland technically has the richer league – it is just that this wealth is concentrated within Celtic and Rangers (who are both roughly double as valuable as their counterparts in Denmark).

Working from a very similar baseline, but with more money to use and invest, it would be easy to draw conclusions that Celtic and Rangers should therefore be significantly more successful than their Danish counterparts. The case for this argument struggles to gain any traction however. In the current 2020/21 season, Scotland’s Champions Celtic failed to progress through the Champions League qualifying stages before being soundly knocked out of the second tier Europa League. Denmark’s Champions FC Midtjylland made it to the group stage of the Champions League. Perhaps not a direct comparison as these results could be heavily influenced by a good or bad individual season or even the luck of the draw in qualifying. But what can be concluded perhaps is that despite Celtic’s significantly stronger financial position, their performance at the top level isn’t indicative of this over the last few years at least.

Moving back to the national team success, it is clear therefore that Denmark has better tuned in to deriving the best from the resources at hand. The baseline between Scotland and Denmark as above is so broadly similar, that it must be concluded that Denmark and Danish teams are simply using the natural resources (and less financial resource) far better in order to achieve success both at club level and consistently on the international stage.

Turning to the questions outlined above, it is fair to say that yes, Scotland could and maybe should be looking across to Denmark and not up at them. The baseline is the same, there are the same opportunities on a broad, macro level. There is no reason based purely on these very broad characteristics and facets that Scotland couldn’t derive the success or it’s footballing peers.

How can this be achieved though?

The major issue as outlined above is the gap between the top clubs in Scotland and the rest. The distribution of wealth and essentially the inequality of the league and the clubs within appears on the face of things to be a main driver or reason behind the lagging behind of the Danish clubs. Now it is of course unrealistic to suggest that Celtic or Rangers simply donate their finances to other clubs or lose all their money and have to start again (Rangers of course already tried that and lost everything!!), but what is more realistic is the reconstruction of the league to try to ensure that wealth and equality is more evenly distributed throughout. A more level playing field has knock on benefits throughout the system, clubs able to better finance and support themselves and so bring in a better quality of player which can help improve the standard of existing squads. A better financial position also means that clubs are under less pressure to sell or are less likely to lose out of contract young players who may benefit from more time in the first team before moving away or to the richer clubs. Furthermore, with more financial stability and more success for other clubs, youth players may feel more confident in choosing those clubs over richer, more powerful sides in the first place.

There may be a number of other solutions, and league reconstruction has been much discussed and much argued in recent years. But often these discussions centre around looking after individual clubs, preserving the status quo and ensuring that things like TV deals and sponsorships can be won. This is all very understandable, but we must also remember that these are the same clubs who have failed to agree individual TV deals and restructuring many times before. It is clear something has to be done therefore. Countries like Denmark offer a useful comparison and help shine a light on where issues or problems lie – if action isn’t taken however it won’t be keeping up with Denmark that is the problem, it will be being overtaken by other, smaller leagues instead.

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