As fans we all have one abiding World Cup, the one that’s not necessarily the greatest in terms of action and incidents, but was the defining moment in our development to becoming fitba fanatics.
For me it was Argentina 1978. I was at a primary school in a wee town in the north-east, and had been introduced to international football through some of Scotland’s qualifiers, against Wales and Czechoslovakia.
Against the Welsh, the Hand of Joe settled the game in Cardiff, Mr Jordan using a part of his anatomy to score Scotland’s second and seal the long journey to South America.
By the summer of 1978 interest in the finals had gone ballistic. It was all the better that the English were resting at home, and Scotland was the UK’s lone representative in the finals.
Manager Ally MacLeod was telling us we were going to win in the Argentine and Andy Cameron was saying so too in his World Cup ditty so it had to be true. You couldn’t go anywhere without tartan and the Lion Rampant being thrust in your face. This, truly, was a Cup for the fans.
As kids in Montrose, we were slavishly collecting stickers for our Panini albums, trying to figure out how to say the Iranian’s names, and playing 15-a-side games in the school park, one team being Holland and the other Brazil or Argentina or whoever.
While 1978 is ingrained in my psyche it may be fair not to rank it among the greatest of cups: there was no Beckenbauer, Muller or Cruyff, the Brazilians were unbeaten but cruelly denied a place in the final, there was no underdog like Zaire or Haiti to cheer on (Peru didn’t qualify as they destroyed Scotland), there was the furore over the home side’s thrashing of the Peruvians, dopegate and the silky Dutch were beaten in the final by the workhorses of the hosts.
But there was the unheralded Argentinian stars like Ossie Ardiles and Mario Kempes, Peru’s Teofilo Cubillas, the Austrians ousting the West Germans, the first African win in the finals – by Tunisia – and of course Archie Gemmill’s wonder strike against the Dutch, so good it was used in a sex scene in Trainspotting and even made into a ballet.
This was the days of 16-teams in the finals so few of the supposed diddy teams like Senegal or Cameroon were given the opportunity to grace the biggest stage. The line-up was made up of some regulars: Brazil, Argentina, Italy, Germany, Mexico, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Hungary .. only Iran and Tunisia were making their debuts and the bulk of the teams, ten to be precise, came from Europe, just one from Asia, North America and Africa respectively and the three South Americans.
Even before the first ball was kicked there was a political undercurrent to the tournament: two years before the Argentinian military deposed the government and imposed a brutal and oppressive regime on the people, thousands of whom were murdered.
It was suggested that Cruyff was boycotting the games as a protest, but he has denied this since, however, the Dutch team did consider pulling out beforehand. German defender Paul Breitner, an avowed Maoist, made no bones of his disgust with the regime and stayed at home.
The first round produced no surprises, Italy and Argentina qualifying from group one; Poland and Germany from group two; Brazil from group three along with Austria and the Dutch and Peru in the final group. Poor France, Platini et al went out, having drawn the short straw by being thrown into group one. Only Italy won all their matches – including wins against Argentina and France and looked good for a place in the final.
If they made it that far, they wouldn’t be facing Scotland, one of the favourites – among Scottish bookies anyway. Graham McColl has written an entire book about our glorious failure, so let’s keep this brief. It started with a nightmare – the 3-1 defeat to Peru, followed by the news that Willie Johnston failed a dope test, a draw with lowly Iran and the backs-to-the-wall victory over the Dutch which featured the goal of the tournament, Archie Gemmill slaloming through the defence like a Brazilian and chipping over the keeper. Predictably, Scotland went out on goal difference.
With no last 16, or quarter-finals, the teams contested two groups of four, with the winners going straight into the final. This meant that Italy and West Germany were ousted from the first group, which was headed by the Dutch. And Brazil and Poland were turfed out of the other group, which was not without controversy. Having drawn their encounter, Argentina and Brazil were both on three points, but Brazil kicked off first in the final round of matches, beating Poland 3-1.
The Argentines therefore knew a four-goal win was required to qualify, against Peru who had no chance of progressing, and they did so with ease, 6-0 in fact. Rumours and accusations abounded but nothing was ever proven. Brazil played seven games, including the third-place play-off, and didn’t lose a single one of them.
In the final, famous for the amount of blue and white confetti that was thrown by the packed crowd, Holland scored first through Dirk Nanninga, a Kempes strike forced extra time and the same striker and Daniel Bertoli scored in the additional half hour for the Argentines, world champions for the first time.
Now they had achieved something South American rivals Brazil and Uruguay had done before, more than once. And more importantly, football was ingrained in my mind – Links Park beckoned in the new season.