Friday, June 11, 2010

Scotland in 1998: Open with a bang, close with a whimper

Just hours away now from the greatest show on earth.

Really beginning to sting that we're not there. Again.

We're now equalling our worst run since we bypassed the event for 16 years from 1958. An inglorious run that somehow coincided with that period in the 1960's when it seemed as if Scottish footballers ruled the world.

For those of us born in the middle of that incredible sequence from 1974 to 1990 Scotland's place at the World Cup seemed assured. We might not do much when we got there but there was few better at actually making it onto the plane.

Missing the 1994 World Cup in the United States was a blemish on an enviable record. That was then. Now not going is the depressing norm.

12 years ago we were on the brink of the biggest game in our history. On the 10th of June 1998 Craig Brown's Scotland team walked, kilted, on to the pitch at the Stade de France. The waiting was about to be over. Scotland were ready. Ready to play Brazil in the opening game of the 1998 World Cup.

I can't begin to comprehend how they felt. It remains one of the most memorable days of my life as a football supporter. And I was in a pub in Edinburgh. When Flower of Scotland blasted from the TV and was echoed around the pub I'll admit that these eyes were glistening.

48 years on from our aborted qualification for the 1950 World Cup we were ready to face the tournament's most iconic nation. The world would be watching. Given the stage, given our history you might have feared the 90 minutes that were to follow.

Might have but probably didn't. This game caught the imagination like few others. Before kick off the streets really were dead. It seemed everyone was watching this game. Such was the interest it was always going to be safer to get to the pub early. As I hazily recall Scotland v Brazil kicked off a fortnight of magnificent drunkeness.

The game itself showed the best of us. We started it with the classic Scottish routine of our hopes appearing to die at the earliest possible moment. It took only four minutes for Cesar Sampai to put Brazil ahead.

But we didn't collapse, didn't fall meekly to the tanking that many thought we'd struggle to avoid.

In the 37th minute Kevin Gallacher - who was tireless up front - was pulled down. John Collins, at that moment surely the most composed Scot on the planet, stroked home the penalty. Pandemonium.

1-1 with Brazil, reigning champions, favourites, the mighty Brazil. And Scotland, perennial World Cup losers, had hunted them down and got back on level terms. It was magical.

Too magical to last perhaps. Brazil got another goal, as surely we knew they would. But such a cruel goal. A save from Leighton, a ricochet off Boyd, a lunging Colin Hendry on the line. Goal. 2-1 down. Brazil, the world's most storied attacking side, were beating us courtesy of a Tom Boyd own goal.

It proved the difference. Another glorious defeat, a valiant failure. Perhaps. But this was Brazil. And we'd held our own. Yes we'd lost another opening game but given the occasion, given all the hype, given the opposition, we'd done well.

It was a result to give the country hope, to give us some optimism as we looked ahead to the next two games.

In which light the coming events were to prove even more disappointing.

Next up Norway. Scotland played in yellow. It looked like a hot day. A different pub this time and there was a great deal on jugs of lager. We had a few.

Do Scotland always perform better when they can hide behind the role of gritty underdogs? Maybe we do. It certainly seemed to hold true against Norway where at times in the first half we looked like the only side who would even consider the possibility of attacking.

But we went in at the break still stuck at 0-0. Profligacy. Another Scottish disease. That afternoon it looked set to be as damaging to public health as childhood obesity.

It didn't stay 0-0 for long.

Haavard Flo got on the end of a cross. 1-0 Norway. Get another couple of jugs in. We're going to need them.

20 minutes later and Scotland were level. Was it a long ball or a searching pass from David Weir? It didn't matter a jot as Craig Burley latched on to it and got the equaliser.

How we needed that. Finally something to show for our chances. Get another couple of jugs in.

And 1-1 it stayed. Maybe we needed more. Maybe we should have got more. But we were hanging on. And twice we'd come from behind. Was there finally a hint of resilience about a Scottish World Cup team.

Into the final game. As it stood Brazil had qualified on six points, Norway had two points from two draws and Scotland and Morocco a point each.

Beat Morocco and hope Norway get no better than a draw against Brazil. Not easy but not impossible. The reward would be the second round at just the eighth time of asking.

Twelve years and the memories become clouded. Has the experience worsened with the distance of time? Has it become so bitter because there have been no fresh World Cup memories to soften the blow?

No. This was a sore one on the night and it's a sore one now.

Tuesday 23rd June 1998. Our last World Cup game for a generation. Maybe we would have laughed if you'd told us that at the time. But maybe not because it had the feeling of a crushing blow, of a era being bludgeoned to death.

Salaheddine Bassir scored after 22 minutes, Abdeljalil Hadda added another on 46 minutes and Bassir rounded things off with minutes to go. Somewhere along the way Craig Burley got sent off. Jim Leighton forgot where his near post was. It was that kind of night.

And the humiliation wasn't even necessary. The ditchwater dull Norwegians beat Brazil. Our game was academic.

There wasn't a jug of beer large enough now. The party hadn't so much ended as been broken by baton wielding police.

Eight World Cups, 23 games played. Four games won. 12 matches lost. 25 goals scored. 41 goals conceded.

If someone had said to me, as my friend said to me that night, that you'd just witnessed to curtain falling on a golden age for Scottish football you might have managed a bittersweet chuckle. But qualifying was our thing. Now that we can't even do that, what are we left with?

Scotland squad at the 1998 World Cup

Friends, whatever else happens, remember this: No country will ever again go to a World Cup with a squad that includes Tosh McKinlay and Matt Elliott. There is a glory in that.

Jim Leighton (Aberdeen)
Jackie McNamara (Celtic)
Tom Boyd (Celtic)
Colin Calderwood (Tottenham Hotspur)
Colin Hendry (Blackburn Rovers)
Tosh McKinlay (Celtic)
Kevin Gallacher (Blackburn Rovers)
Craig Burley (Celtic)
Gordon Durie (Rangers)
Darren Jackson (Celtic)
John Collins (AS Monaco)
Neil Sullivan (Wimbledon)
Simon Donnelly (Celtic)
Paul Lambert (Celtic)
Scott Gemmill (Nottingham Forest)
David Weir (Hearts)
Billy McKinlay (Blackburn Rovers)
Matthew Elliott (Leicester City)
Derek Whyte (Aberdeen)
Scott Booth (FC Utrecht)
Jonathan Gould (Celtic)
Christian Dailly (Derby County)

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