Scotland’s Place in the Footballing World

Scotland, we’re a nation of dour detractors aren’t we?  And there is no bigger collective hate figure for our national cynicism than our national sport of football.  We’ve had nothing to praise or shout about for sixteen years some will tell you, and some will even go further to say that we haven’t had any real success as a footballing nation since the eighties, when Aberdeen won the Cup Winners’ Cup , or even further back to the 1978 World Cup where we believed that Ally MacLeod could actually take us further than the Group Stage.  I’ve grown up with this national pessimism and taken it on board.  But Scotland’s recent resurgence in internationals and the glimpse of a summer trip to France in two years has led me to look into Scotland’s place in the world of football – are we really as bad as we say we are?  The answer is no – we’re actually doing quite well.

There is no denying that Scotland and its’ clubs have been more successful in the past than at present but our national team, our leagues and our clubs are still performing at a far higher level than would be expected of a country of our size.  I’ve looked at many different metrics of footballing achievement and tallied them alongside population to see how Scotland, and the other countries of Europe and the world, are over-performing or under-performing based on their population. I’ve tried to include other relevant countries you can use as a benchmark of how we are doing in tables along the way, with a focus on Scotland and our largest neighbour, England.

Here’s a quick table of all of my comparisons so you can quickly jump to them:

FIFA World Rankings vs. Population
FIFA World Rankings vs. Population & Age of National Football Association
World Football ELO Ratings vs. Population
World Cup Appearances per capita
European Championship Appearances per capita
Attendances vs. Population
UEFA League Co-efficient vs. Population
European Cup/Champions League Wins & Finals vs. Population
European Club Competition Wins vs. Population
FIFA World Rankings vs. Population

Looking at the FIFA World Ranking and you will find Scotland in 37th in the world.  Some will baulk at the fact we are behind Honduras and only a few places above Armenia – but these rankings don’t tell the full story.  Scotland’s population is only the 117th highest out of FIFA’s 209 members, so we are in effect 80 places higher than we should be by population.  This makes us the 15th most over-performing country in the world. Here’s a few of the key countries in terms of under-performing and over-performing:

Rank Fifa World Ranking Population Ranking Difference
1 Cape Verde Islands 33 173 140
2 Uruguay 6 136 130
3 Iceland 52 178 126
12 Wales 49 138 89
15 Scotland 37 117 80
77 Spain 1 28 27
97 England 12 24 12
127 Brazil 9 5 -4
179 Kazakhstan 127 61 -66
191 China 98 1 -97
209 Bangladesh 162 8 -154

The full table with all 209 FIFA nations is on page 2 of this post.

FIFA World Rankings vs. Population & Age of National Football Association

A common argument against using the measure I have above is that a nation’s footballing achievement can’t necessarily be squared off along lines of population – as some countries (like ourselves) have played football for a lot longer than others.  So I created a composite ranking taking the average of both nations’ population rank and a ranking of how old their football association is, and still Scotland are over-performing – being 44th on the combination ranking, 7 places below their current World Ranking:

Rank Fifa World Ranking Combination Rank. Difference
1 Bosnia-Herzegovina 21 179 158
2 Cape Verde Islands 33 191 158
85 Spain 1 11 10
88 Wales 49 58 9
94 Scotland 37 44 7
110 Brazil 9 10 1
139 England 12 1 -11
147 Northern Ireland 86 70 -16
175 Poland 73 22 -51
209 Indonesia 154 6 -148

You can find the full table with all 209 FIFA nations on page 3 of this post, and see exactly how the composite ranking is formed on page 9.

World Football ELO Ratings vs. Population

Some disagree with the FIFA World Rankings’ method and prefer the World Football ELO Ratings. Scotland are ranked 39th in that ranking, lower than in FIFA’s version, although if you tabulate all countries’ difference between their population and world ranking you will find that Scotland are actually the 13th most over-performing country in the world:

Rank World F’ball ELO Rating Population Ranking Difference
1 Uruguay 9 136 127
2 Montenegro 60 168 108
13 Scotland 39 117 78
71 Spain 2 28 26
80 England 6 24 18
100 Brazil 1 5 4
174 Kazakhstan 124 61 -63
183 China 72 1 -71
209 Pakistan 192 6 -186

You can find the full table, along with the source and credit, on page 4 of this post.

World Cup Appearances per capita

Of course our success in major championships has been documented to be one of the best records around for a country of our size.  We are the 3rd most over-performing country in the world in terms of population per World Cup appearances, with only Uruguay, a team that has won the trophy twice and is perhaps the most over-performing country in footballing history, and Northern Ireland ahead of us.

Rank World Cup Apps. Population Pop. Per App
1 Uruguay 12 3,286,314 273,860
2 Northern Ireland 3 1,810,863 603,621
3 Scotland 8 5,295,000 661,875
34 Spain 14 46,704,314 3,336,022
37 England 14 53,012,456 3,786,604
57 Brazil 20 201,032,714 10,051,636
77 China 1 1,360,720,000 As left

You can find the full list of nations that have qualified for the FIFA World Cup and their per capita ranking at the top of page 5 of this post.

European Championship Appearances per capita

Although we’ve only made it to two European Championships, we are the 10th most over-performing nation out of the 28 that have qualified for one of the tournaments.

Rank Euro Champ Apps. Population Pop. Per App
1 Denmark 8 5,627,235 703,404
2 Croatia 4 4,290,612 1,072,653
9 Republic of Ireland 2 4,593,100 2,296,550
10 Scotland 2 5,295,000 2,647,500
19 Spain 9 46,704,314 5,189,368
20 England 8 53,012,456 6,626,557
21 Germany 11 80,619,000 7,329,000
28 Ukraine 1 45,426,200 As left

You can find the full list of European Championships per capita on the bottom half of page 5 of this post.

Attendances vs. Population

A common criticism of the Scottish game that attendances aren’t what they should be but if you look at the numbers and compare them to other countries’ then they don’t look nearly as bad.  Combining the latest two figures available for the Scottish Premier League and First Division (admittedly a few years ago with Rangers in the SPL and with different seasons quoted for each division) and you’ll find the total attendance of both leagues equates to 68% of Scotland’s population.  The nearest any country with their top two leagues’ attendances quoted is England, with only an equivalent of 44% of their population attending games:

Combined Top 2 Tier attendances:
Rank Season(s) Total Attendance Att. As % of Pop.
1 Scotland 2011/12-2010/11 3,613,294 68.24%
2 England 2012/13-2011/12 23,445,598 44.23%
3 Netherlands 2011/12 7,245,529 43.02%
4 Spain 2011/12-2010/11 15,252,311 32.66%
6 Germany 2012/13-2011/12 18,321,929 22.73%
12 Brazil 2013 7,632,648 3.80%
14 China 2013-2009 5,128,770 0.38%

The Scottish Premier League’s total attendance for the 2011/12 season was bettered only by Cyprus’ First Division the year before in terms of attendance per population:

Top Tier Attendances:
Rank Season(s) Total Attendance Att. As % of Pop.
1 Cyprus 2009/10 555,840 64.19%
2 Scotland 2011/12 3,160,414 59.69%
8 England 2012/13 13,653,908 25.76%
12 Spain 2011/12 11,504,567 24.63%
17 Germany 2012/13 13,038,533 16.17%
59 Brazil 2013 5,682,868 2.83%
64 MLS (USA/Canada) 2013 6,005,991 1.89%
68 China 2013 4,456,977 0.33%

The First Division, perhaps Scotland’s most exciting league, was only behind England’s Championship in being the highest second tier attendance per population in the world:

Second Tier Attendances:
Rank Season(s) Total Attendance Att. As % of Pop.
1 England 2011/12 9,791,690 18.47%
2 Scotland 2010/11 452,880 8.55%
3 Spain 2010/11 3,747,744 8.02%
5 Germany 2011/12 5,283,396 6.55%
12 Brazil 2013 1,949,780 0.97%
14 China 2009 671,793 0.05%

Comprehensive attendance statistics and full tables for all three of these measures can be found on page 6 of this post.

UEFA League Co-efficient vs. Population

Poor performances in European competitions by our clubs in recent years, other than some Old Firm forays into the Champions League Last 16, has meant that our much discussed league co-efficient has nose-dived, leaving Scotland’s top division ranked 23rd in Europe out of 54.  Comparing this ranking with our population ranking within the continent, though, shows that our league is the still the 11th most over-performing league.

Rank League Ranking Population Ranking Difference
1 Cyprus 18 45 27
10 Spain 1 7 6
11 Scotland 23 29 6
14 England 2 6 4
28 Germany 3 2 -1
52 Wales 48 36 -12
54 Kazakhstan 34 11 -23

A full table of UEFA co-efficients vs. Population can be found on page 7 of this post.

European Cup/Champions League Wins & Finals vs. Population

Our clubs’ successes in Europe, primarily in the 60s, 70s and 80s have seen us more than hold our own in terms of European club football history.  We are still the smallest nation to have had a European Cup winner, with Celtic’s famous Lisbon Lions taking home the trophy in 1967.  13 countries have been represented in a European Cup final and we have the 5th lowest population per final reached (with 2) and 6th lowest population per final won.

Per Win Rank Per Final Rank Population Wins Finals Pop. per Win Pop. per Final
1 1 Portugal 10,487,289 4 9 2,621,822 1,165,254
3 3 Spain 46,704,314 13 22 3,592,640 2,122,923
4 6 England 53,012,456 12 19 4,417,705 2,790,129
6 5 Scotland 5,295,000 1 2 5,295,000 2,647,500
7 7 Germany 80,619,000 7 17 11,517,000 4,742,294
9 13 Yugoslavia 23,724,919 1 2 23,724,919 11,862,460
10 11 France 65,844,000 1 6 65,844,000 10,974,000

The full table, including all nations to have been represented in a European Cup/Champions League Final is at the top of page 8 of this post.

European Club Competition Wins vs. Population

When you take into account Cup Winners’ Cups and Europa Leagues (and its’ predecessors) we are ranked even higher, with our 3 trophy wins meaning we have the 4th lowest population per trophy win behind Portugal, Holland and Spain (and ahead of England).

(Update – After a Twitter request I looked into the figures if Super Cup Wins were included as well and found that Scotland would still be in 4th place with 4 total trophy wins and a Population per Win of 1,323,750 which would place us behind the Netherlands in 1st, Spain in 2nd and Portugal in 3rd place)

Rank Total Wins Population Pop. Per Win
1 Portugal 7 10,487,289 616,899
3 Spain 27 46,704,314 2,747,313
4 Scotland 3 5,295,000 1,765,000
5 England 27 53,012,456 1,963,424
9 Germany 17 80,619,000 4,742,294
16 France 2 65,844,000 32,922,000
17 Russia 2 143,700,000 71,850,000

The full table of per capita European club competition wins is at the bottom of page 8 of this post.


With our performances in each of these criteria it’s easy to deduce that Scotland is punching above its weight big time at the moment, easily being one of the most over-performing nations in Europe and the world.  We are a small nation that has been, and still is, capable of great things: even on the football pitch.  Of course these statistics need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but they do shine a more positive light on what is often portrayed as a bleak sporting landscape.  Here’s an overview of Scotland’s place in the footballing world, with the percentile showing the percentage of teams doing better than us in that metric:

Rank Total Teams Percentile
Top Tier Attendance 2 67 3%
World Cup Apps, per capita 3 77 4%
ELO Ranking vs. Pop. 13 209 6%
Top 2 Tiers Attendance 1 14 7%
FIFA World Ranking vs. Pop. 15 209 7%
UEFA League Coef. Vs. Pop. 11 54 20%
Euro Comp. Wins per capita 4 18 22%
Euro. Champ Apps per capita 10 28 36%
European Cup Finals 5 13 38%
European Cup Wins 6 10 60%

For anyone interested in the raw statistics of these conclusions (and why wouldn’t you be?) you can find the full, unabridged tables I created/used on the next few pages, along with the sources and credits for the information.  Here’s what’s on each page:

Page Information
2 FIFA World Rankings vs. Population Rank
3 FIFA World Rankings vs. Population/F.A. Age Rank
4 World Football ELO Ratings vs. Population
5 World Cup appearances per capita
European C’ship appearances per capita
6 Attendance figures of National Football Leagues
7 UEFA League Co-efficients vs. Population Rank
8 European Cup Wins/Finals per capita
European club tournament Wins per capita
9 Population Rank
National Football Associations Age Rank
Combination (Pop. & F.A.) Rank

Thanks very much for reading, and hopefully you are left with a sunnier view of Scottish football in the grand scheme of things.  If you have any feedback, comments or even disagreements with this post please feel free to leave a comment.

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