Ruthven: Belgian-Dutch league could be game-changer for Scotland

With Belgium and the Netherlands set to merge their top divisions, talk of Scotland joining a cross-border league is back on the agenda...

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More than once, Scottish clubs have been presented with a hypothetical vision. The term ‘Atlantic League’ has been uttered so many times over the past two decades or so that it has entered the Scottish football lexicon as a cliche. Most recently, clubs from Scotland, Denmark, Belgium, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden met in 2016 to discuss the formation of a new breakaway division. Nothing came of it, as was the case in 2001, 2002 and 2008.

And yet the notion of a cross-border league, whether it’s with Northern European nations or England, never quite leaves the Scottish game. It might be about to bubble to the surface once again, with recent reports claiming Belgium and Netherlands are in talks to merge their two league structures, creating one footballing pyramid for the Benelux countries.

The logic is clear, the idea being that by pitting the likes of Ajax, Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven and the rest against each other, Belgian and Dutch football will become more prosperous. In essence, it’s the concept of trickledown economics – the rich might get richer, but those beneath will also feel the benefit. That is, at least, the theory.

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Should this come to pass, Scottish football’s interest will surely be piqued. Of course, Scotland already has a cross-border competition, with teams from England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales invited to compete in the Irn-Bru Cup in the past two seasons. SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster believes this to be the way forward for the sport in the country, pointing to growing trends across Europe.

“That is absolutely the direction of travel,” he said back in the summer of 2017, when the Irn-Bru was first reformatted to include non-Scottish teams. “A number of territories have looked at cross-border competition, and Uefa are clearly open-minded about where that might lead in future. The fact we are able to include teams from Republic of Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland positions us very well for the future, whatever that may hold.”

The Irn-Bru Cup is a lower league competition, with top flight teams excluded, so this cross-border scheme has occurred without much controversy, at least not enough to halt its implantation. But many believe that Doncaster is using it as a Trojan horse to eventually make fundamental changes further up the Scottish football ladder.

Doncaster has also previously referenced a Belgian-Dutch women’s football division called the BeNe League, officially recognised by UEFA between 2012 and 2015. The SPFL chief is building a dossier of evidence to aid his argument in the event that Scotland goes to UEFA and asks to be part of a cross-border league.

Of course, a cross-border league involving Scottish clubs would, most likely, see only Celtic and Rangers, possibly Aberdeen, Hearts and Hibernian too, plucked, with the rest left behind. Whether this would be a good or bad thing for the Scottish game has been debated for years, with many arguing that the removal of Celtic and Rangers in particular would liberate the sport north of the border, establishing a more competitive field.

Others claim that Scottish football would resemble the Welsh game should the biggest and best teams leave to play elsewhere.

The argument is perhaps down to ideology as much as anything, but there can be no denying the desire at the top of the Scottish game to at least explore these cross-border options.

The forming of a Belgian-Dutch men’s football league would be a landmark moment for European football as a whole. It would edge the sport closer to a pan-continental super league, the kind that has recently been used as a threat to ensure the elite get what they want in the Champions League. But for Scottish football, it could be a game changer. It could break down barriers that have always prevented hypothetical from being reality.

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