Scotland, the World Cup and the most glorious failure of them all


Younger readers won’t believe it, but Scotland used to qualify for the World cup finals all the time. No kidding. We actually took it for granted. We learned to cope with glorious failures when we got there but we always got there. There was a time though when we nearly won the damn thing.

In 1974 it wasn’t so much Vorsprung Durch Technik as Where Wis Wur Technique. Sure, we nearly beat the reigning holders, the mighty Brazil, but little Zaire taught us a lesson – the importance of scoring plenty against the diddy team. We learned a new phrase that year was soon to become ingrained in the Scottish Psyche: goal difference.

In 1978 we were on the march with Ally’s Army and it was a formality that the trophy would be coming home to its rightful place. The champions-elect got their perms done, stocked up on the banned substances and duly set off on the bus from Hampden as we jumped into our submarines. At least this time there was to be no lack of goals against the diddy team… we conceded plenty. Ewan McGregor scored his famous solo goal (the one you can see in Archie Gemmill’s classic film, Trainspotting), but it was déjà vu and homeward bound on goal difference again.

In 1982 we combined the fitba and the package holiday and had the time of our life. We did the samba with bikini-clad Brazilians as Zico put us in our place after Narey’s audacious ‘toe-poke’ (© that English chap with the chin). New Zealand? Nae bother tae us. It even looked like we’d get to the second round when we were beating the Russkis until Alan Hansen and Willie Miller did the honourable thing and gifted a goal away. (What many don’t yet know is that they were under government orders. It was feared that getting to the second round would be too much of a shock for the Scottish populace. This information only came to public light this summer under the 30 year official secrets rule). So goal difference it was. Again.

In 1986 we were Mexico bound and by now we wur bein honest wi wursels. We expected zilch and we weren’t disappointed. Strachan tried to do the hurdles as we lost to the Germans. Stevie Nicol missed a sitter and pissed off telly’s Ian St John as we lost to the Danes. The entire team had their legs broken as we drew with the Uruguayans. And that was about the extent of it. Hell, this time we weren’t even good enough to go out on goal difference.

In 1990… well, the less said about that the better. Sure, after flying Ibrox Stadium over to Genoa and renaming it the Stadio Luigis Ferraris, we played with a passion that would have beaten anyone and had a fine win against the Turnips. It was the usual ‘nearly’ story against the Brazilians (another habit we were now getting into with increasing regularity). But we’d already lost all self-respect after being humbled by tournament favourites Costa Rica. At least we proved though that we’d finally shaken off the monkey of goal difference.

In 1994 we chose not to go to the party in the USA. We’d made lots of friends in 1982 when we played the Russkis and justice was to be done. In the spirit of glasnost it was all about Solidarity. The Yanks had boycotted Moscow for the 1980 Olympics so we agreed to join our Russian brotherskis in boycotting World Cup 94. Unfortunately, the paper boy forgot to deliver our issue of Pravda and we missed the article about the Russkis changing their mind and going to Soccerland after all.

In 1998 it was a wee trek across the river to gay Paree but the deployment tactics were arse over elbow. To be fair, we had the routine near-thing against Brazil and the team played out of their skin against Stan Collymore after he decided that Paris and Ulrika were more suited to boxing than romance. By now though we were getting used to being thumped by the supposed diddy team and Morocco duly obliged accordingly. That left us with a solitary point against a Norway team that even had Flo on the scoresheet (no, not Tore-Andre, don’t be so feckin ridiculous, we weren’t THAT bad).

We were starting to get a little pissed off by this stage and decided it was time we withdrew from all future World Cup competitions. We have maintained that honourable stance to this very day and it seems very unlikely that we will alter our stance at any time in the near future.

But it wasn’t always this way. For there was a time years ago when we actually could – and should – have won the World Cup.

No, I’m not tripping and I’ve not been on Willie Johnston’s Reactivan. It happened. Nearly. I’m talking about 1989. For that is the year our dreams so nearly came true.

Younger readers will have no idea what I am talking about but that is the year we got to the World Cup Final. And it was at Hampden! And it truly, literally, actually, no kidding, was a proper glorious failure unlike all the inglorious glorious failures we’ve been drip-fed over the years.

In 1989, the Under-16 World Cup came to Scotland and brought the cream of the crop with it including Brazil, Argentina and Portugal to name but a few (I think England got lost on the way).

It all started off fairly innocuously too.

As FIFA struggled to cope with the overwhelming clamour for tickets, Hampden was the logical option for our opening game. Tickets were trading hands for ten times their face value as the stadium prepared for a crowd that would beat the 52 year old record attendance of 149,415.

Hampden was subsequently packed to the rafters as 6,500 watched a goalless draw with Ghana.

Fir Park, Motherwell was a far better choice for our next two group games. It made for a far better atmosphere as 9,000 watched a convincing 3-0 win over Cuba and 13,500 saw a 1-1 draw with Bahrain. We had secured our place in the quarter-finals.

Pittodrie was the next destination and a disappointing crowd of just over 10,000 saw a narrow 1-0 victory over East Germany. But we were in the semi-finals now. Suddenly the country really started to get interested and wake up to the possibility – might Scotland actually be able to win a World Cup? The Tartan Army was in unknown territory here and altitude sickness was setting in.

What happened next will live with me forever. You know those games you’ll just never forget? Well, this was one of those. 20 June 1989 and Tynecastle was the venue on a balmy summer’s night for the semi-final against Portugal.

It is always said that hindsight is a great thing. Well, with the benefit of hindsight now, it is fair to say that we had no right to even be on the same pitch as the Portugese.

Don’t get me wrong – the Scotland team had a few players that would go on to have successful professional careers. The most notable of these were Brian O’Neill, Paul Dickov, Andy McLaren, Gary Bollan and Scott Marshall.

Portugal however had Rui Costa and Luis Figo, guys who would go on attain the status of world-class legends. The quality of that side would start to become more apparent a couple of years later. The nucleus of the Under-16 squad stayed together and went on to win the 1991 Under-20 World Cup, beating the mighty Brazil in front of a home crowd of 127,000 (yes, 127,000).

The crowd at Tynecastle would be a little smaller than that of course but we had a suspicion it would be a full house. The decision was therefore made to arrive early and the pints were duly dispatched.

As we arrived on Gorgie Road, we quickly realised that our decision to arrive early had been the right one. Traffic was at an absolute standstill as tens of thousands made their way on foot.

Back then, the official capacity of Tynecastle was around 29,000 and the attendance that night was reported as 28,555. All I can say is that the crowd must have been counted by those same people who shall remain nameless but who were well-known (allegedly…) for understating attendance figures at the other end of the M8. 28,555? Two words: my arse.

I’d been in capacity crowds at Tynie before but this was much busier. The gates had actually been closed long before kick-off and thousands were locked out. You simply could not move. Fans were being ushered onto the side of the pitch to try to find space elsewhere in the ground.

The atmosphere was electric and the noise was deafening with everyone singing for the same team. Tynie was always good for the atmosphere and it still is, but with the lower capacity nowadays I don’t think it’s anywhere near as good now. The old Shed in particular was renowned for its noise back then but this night was exceptional.

I don’t actually remember much about the game itself apart from Brian O’Neill scoring the only goal early in the second half. The place absolutely erupted but it had been at boiling point all night. The atmosphere and the occasion will always live in the memory.

The final at Hampden was another matter.

These were the days before sat-nav and our driver was a Jambo so he wasn’t too familiar with the route to Hampden. By the time we arrived we’d already missed the goals that gave Scotland an early 2-0 lead in front of 51,000 fans. It wasn’t to last. Our late arrival obviously jinxed proceedings and we lost on penalties after a 2-2 draw.

We were cheated though and to repeat an expression that has often been thrown about in recent times, for the victors it was most definitely a tainted title. Under-16s? Someone forgot to tell that to the Saudi Arabians. Their team seemed to have an average age of about 28. All moustaches, beards, muscle and maturity. Most of that team actually retired shortly afterwards due to old age.

Us Scots always talk about glorious failures (we used to anyway…), but those Under-16 boys gave us the most glorious of them all and they would surely have gone a step further had they not been so disgustingly cheated. Maybe there’s a lesson there for our senior side though – could we field pensioners in our side? Well it worked for the Saudis and they certainly couldn’t do much worse than the current lot…

A short footnote. In the days when I was still naïve enough to take it for granted that the senior side always qualified for the World Cup, STV told us that we’d actually be hosting it!!!

Oh how we celebrated as we set forth to our local pitches for a hastily organised World Cup kickaboot. We were in our element. Brazil were coming to our back door. We’d beat the Germans no bother cos we’d be at home. England hopefully wouldn’t qualify but if they did we wanted to beat them too. Kickaboot complete, we excitedly converged at the ‘rich’ kid’s hoose for coke and crisps to discuss our future ticket strategy. The committee was set up and funding was already being secured (“MMMMMUUUUUUUUUUMMMMM…”). And then it dawned on us…

Well, how were we to have known it was April Fool’s Day?

Written by PridenoPrejudice


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