How can the Scottish Football Association create a competitive advantage?

With the men’s national squad sitting at 67th in the FIFA world rankings, and having failed to reach a major tournament since 1998, gaining a competitive advantage is perhaps more important than ever before for the SFA. But short of cloning everyone’s favourite Scotsman, Steven Naismith, ten times to form a world-class team, what can really be done to drag our beloved Football Association out of these dark times?


Steven Naismith faces up to Ireland’s James McClean in last year’s Euro 2016 qualifier (Daily Record, 2015)

So, what exactly is competitive advantage?

According to Robinson and Minikin (2012), competitive advantage is “the strategic advantage that one organisation has over others that operate within its competitive industry”. My immediate reaction would be that Scotland has absolutely no chance. How can a nation of around 5,000,000 people even begin to compete with Germany, Brazil or even (dare I say it) the Auld Enemy?

The same could be asked about Portugal, a relatively small nation who achieved success at this year’s European Championships in France, despite the disappointment of Ronaldo’s early exit from the final. We could also look at Iceland, who surpassed all expectations at Euro 2016 to knock England out in the last 16. The key point in the definition above is that competitive advantage is a result of strategic planning. To gain this advantage, an organisation must know its strengths, and its weaknesses, and play to these. This is obviously an area in which both Portugal and Iceland are ahead of Scotland’s game…

How can the SFA gain competitive advantage?

Leigh’s lecture slides note that in order to gain a competitive advantage, an organisation must have strategies which:

  • Focus resources on priorities
  • Create alliances with other sports/nations
  • Focus on other events

I hope that by looking at these in turn, a conclusion can be reached on the steps I feel would be appropriate for the SFA to take on this journey.

Focus Resources on Priorities

The obvious priority for the SFA is the men’s first team – the pinnacle of sport in Scotland (albeit not a very high one). I agree with this, but I do feel that to gain this elusive competitive advantage, the organisation needs to look to the future. Writing off a generation, and looking to the future, is possibly the most effective move here. Karamoko Dembele, the 13-year old ‘wonder-kid’ currently playing at Celtic, is eligible for Scotland, England or the Ivory Coast. Having represented Scotland at under 16 level in the Victory Shield, it is widely rumoured that Dembele wants to be a Scotland player, having grown up in the country. If he, and others of his age, meet their potential, is it maybe best for the SFA to pin their hopes on Euro 2024?

If this is the case, the SFA must put as much as it can into youth football. In steps Oriam, Scotland’s new performance sport facility at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Now hosting Youth Internationals and training camps on a regular basis, facilities like this one could become invaluable to the SFA, providing the organisation with access to world-class pitches and sports science technologies.

Create Alliances With Other Nations

It’s no secret that the SPFL is far from world-class in terms of the quality of football being played. The most recent Scotland squad contained just 8 players plying their trade in the domestic leagues, with all but one of the remaining players featuring for English clubs. This may not be an official partnership or alliance, but I would argue that this pattern should continue if we want success on an international level. To gain an advantage, Scottish players must be pitting themselves against the world’s best on a regular basis, and unfortunately this just isn’t going to happen if they’re playing against Partick Thistle four times a year. Having Scottish players competing in the EPL or English Championship (or even further afield in Europe’s other top leagues) will improve the quality of the squad.

Focus on Other Events

I’ve already said that the SFA’s current priority is the men’s first team. But what if they moved away from that? The Women’s National Team, in stark contrast to their male counterparts, sit at a respectable 21st in the FIFA Rankings, and have just qualified for their first major tournament – next year’s European Championships in the Netherlands.

Across the world, footballing nations tend to (with the exception, perhaps, of countries such as Canada and the USA) put the focus on their men’s representative squads. It could be the case that, if the SFA wants to create something with allows them to differentiate themselves and gain a competitive advantage, they should focus on Women’s football, where they are already performing above the level which may be expected of such a small nation.

In women’s football, Scotland again has the issue that the league is not providing a competitive environment for our top players. The SWPL is dominated by Glasgow City, who have won the league for the past 10 seasons. Their only realistic competition comes from Hibs, who this season managed to take both domestic cups back to Edinburgh. This, however, is something which can still be changed. In comparison to the longstanding dominance of the Old Firm in the men’s game, this pattern is relatively new. Professional players are starting to pop up at women’s clubs across the country, which will improve the quality of the league and can hopefully reverse the trend of young girls leaving Scotland to ply their trade in the English WSL or on the Continent.


It’s important to remember that gaining a competitive advantage doesn’t necessarily mean you become the best in the world (which is lucky for the SFA, as that’s just not going to happen). It’s about playing to your strengths, and doing something different so that you can reach your strategic goals. After considering the options above, I would argue that the SFA should look to the future. Whilst it may upset the Tartan Army, it is important that the nation focuses on the promising youth players we have coming through. All too often, young stars fail to live up to their potential and are lost, only to reappear years later in the lower leagues.

Women’s football should also become a priority – this is an area in which Scotland can really excel by being an ‘early adopter’. The SFA should focus on marketing and promoting the team – and encouraging the Tartan Army to follow them in their journey to the Euros next summer. Success breeds success – and it just might be that having a successful and well-supported women’s squad can only serve to help improve the quality and performance of our men’s team too!


BBC Sport Scotland. (2016). Glasgow City clinch 10 league titles in a row by beating Hibs. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

BBC Sport Scotland. (2016). Scottish Women’s Cup: Hibernian win final on penalties against Glasgow City. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

Daily Record –  Kyle, G. (2015). Scotland star Steven Naismith: Courage and character pulled us through ‘derby’ draw with Ireland. Available: Last accessed 17th November 2016.

Daily Record. (2016). Scotland women make football history by qualifying for their first major tournament. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

FIFA. (2016). Men’s Ranking. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016

FIFA. (2016). Women’s Ranking. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

Oriam. (2016). Oriam Facilities. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

Robinson, L., and Minikin, B., (2012). Understanding the Competitive Advantage of National Olympic Committees. Managing Leisure. vol. 17, no. 3, p. 139-154.

Scottish FA. (2016). Scotland Squad Announced for Wembley.Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

Scottish National Team. (2013). Steven Naismith celebrates 25 Scotland caps with a goal against Croatia. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

SPFL. (2016). Scottish Professional Football League. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

Taylor, D. (2016). England humiliated as Iceland knock them out of Euro 2016. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

Wikipedia. (2016). Tartan Army. Available: Last accessed 27th November 2016.

YouTube –  GC 23. (2016). UEFA Euro 2016 Final : Cristiano Ronaldo exits with knee injury. Available: Last accessed 15th November 2016.

YouTube – Scout Nation. (2016). KARAMOKO DEMBELE | Goals, Skills, Assists | Celtic | 2016. Available: Last accessed 15th November 2016.

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