With the opening game of the World Cup in Russia, which features the hosts take on Saudi Arabia, less than a few hours away, it will also mark an unwanted anniversary for Scotland fans; it will have been twenty years since Scotland last qualified for a major tournament.
It seems like a long time ago and a lot has changed since the heady days of 1998; I was still in primary school, JK Rowling had only released her second Harry Potter book, “The Chamber of Secrets”, Tony Blair was a Prime Minister in his second year and you were probably using the internet on Netscape Navigator!
The national team too has changed since then with managers and players coming and going (and in Big Eck McLeish’s case returning) with varying degrees of success in playing style but not in qualification. This has dampened fan expectation, where once upon a time qualifying was expected, with Scotland qualifying five times in a row between 1974 and 1990 whereas now a playoff place is the realistic aim of even the most optimistic of fans. It is important then to remember days like the 12th of June 1998, when a Scotland team managed by Craig Brown walked onto the pitch fully kilted in Paris ready to take on the Seleção in the opening game of France 98 with the eyes of the world watching.
The initial qualification draw for France 98 took place on the 12th of December 1995. France as hosts were exempt from the draw as were holders Brazil since they were defending champions. This left 30 slots available with a massive 14 up for grabs for European nations. Scotland were drawn into Group 4 along with Austria, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Sweden. From this group, the winners would qualify with second place being ranked against the teams that finished first, third and forth in their groups. This would be compared with second place from the other groups and the team with the best record would qualify and the other runners up would enter a two legged play off.
Scotland started their campaign on the 31st of August 1996 in Vienna in front of twenty seven thousand fans, drawing 0-0 with a solid Austrian team which in retrospect was a great away point as Austria ended up topped the group. Scotland followed this up in October with a 2-0 away win in Latvia with John Collins and Darren Jackson grabbing the goals in Riga.
The next game against Estonia is one of the most memorable qualifying game Scotland have been involved in from recent times due to the controversy that took place. Scheduled to play Estonia in Tallinn on the 9th of October. At the time it was a must win game for both teams with one point separating the sides going into the match. Due to issues with the floodlights, the match was brought forward from an evening kick off to a lunch time kick off causing the Estonia Football Association to protest the move citing logistics and a loss of television revenue. The Estonian team therefore failed to show up for the rearranged time which lead to the bizarre spectacle of Scotland lining up and kicking off in front of 1,000 fans but with no opposition. It was originally assumed that Scotland would be awarded the win but UEFA later ordered the match to be replayed at a neutral venue. The incident has been affectionately dubbed “One Team in Tallinn” by Scotland fans originating from a song during the abandoned game.
The first home game of the campaign in November brought a win, as Scotland edged past Sweden 1-0 at Ibrox. John McGinlay grabbed an early goal and Scotland managed to see the game out due to a heroic goalkeeping display from Jim Leighton.
The rearranged Estonia game was played in Monaco’s Stade Louis II stadium on the 11th of February 1997 and resulted in a disappointing 0-0 draw. The return game on the 29th of March was played at Rugby Park saw Scotland run out comfortable 2-0 winners with a Tom Boyd goal and an own goal seeing them on their way. Arguably the result of the campaign followed on April 2nd against Austria, where Scotland won 2-0 with goals from Kevin Gallacher in front of a packed Celtic Park. The joy was short lived as the first major setback of the campaign, a 2-1 defeat in Sweden, followed on April 30th.
This proved to be only a minor blip for Scotland as they bounced back from their disappointment in Sweden with a 1-0 win the Minsk against Belarus thanks to a Gary McAllister penalty early in the second half. The then met Belarus again at Pittodrie where they thrashed the visitors 4-1 with two goals a piece from Kevin Gallacher and David Hopkin.
The final game of the group was a home fixture at Celtic Park against Latvia on 11th October 1997, where goals from Gordon Durie and that man again, Kevin Gallacher was enough to see Scotland qualify as the best second placed team, therefore avoiding a playoff. I attended the final game against Latvia, but my memory of the actual football is sketchy at best. I do remember Scotland doing their lap of honour, soaking up the adulation of the Tartan Army, which has stuck with me.
There were plenty positives to be taken from the campaign, in particular Scotland defensive record having only conceded three goals in ten qualifying games (two coming in the defeat in Sweden). An experienced goalkeeper in Jim Leighton and a settled backline featuring Celtic club captain Tom Boyd provided a solid base for more forward thinking players like John Collins and Gary McAlister to weave their creative magic. The form of Kevin Gallacher, who scored 6 goals during the campaign was also a cause for optimism.
With regards to other qualifiers for World Cup 98, Croatia, Jamaica, Japan and South Africa all qualified for the first time. The most notable to teams to miss out were two time champions Uruguay, Sweden who finished a lofty third at USA 94 and Russia who failed to qualify for the first time since 1978 (who were under the guise of USSR) after losing their play off with Italy. Scotland are also in good company, as of 2018, this is also the last time Norway, Austria, Bulgaria, Romania and also Jamaica have qualified for a World Cup. This would be Scotland’s 8th World Cup Finals.
The draw for France 1998 took place in the Stade Veladrome in Marseille on 4th December 1997. Amongst the pomp and pageantry that these events usually entail, a friendly all stars match took place between a European XI coached by Franz Beckenbaur and Rest of the World XI coached by Alberto Parreria. The teams were made up of 1 player from each of the qualified teams with Gordon Durie being Scotlands representative. The victory went to Rest of the World after a thrilling 5-4 match, with Ronaldo and Batistuta up front for Rest of the World proving too much to handle! That important business taken care of, Scotland were drawn into Group A with World Cup 94 Champions Brazil, Norway and Morocco. Scotland and Brazil would open the tournament on June 10 1998 at the newly opened Stade De France in front of 80,000 people in attendance and an estimated 1.7 billion people watching on TVs around the world, one third of the worlds population.
Craig Brown announced his 22 man squad on May 13th 1998 with only two contentious omissions. The hero from the Switzerland victory at Euro 1996, Ally McCoist and Rangers team mate Stuart McCall were left at home, with Brown saying, ‘Some players are in the squad as back-up but I’m also looking forward to the Euro 2000 championships.’ Simon Donnelly and Darren Jackson were their replacements.
Controversy did sweep the Scotland camp fifteen days prior to the opening game. Craig Brown picked Jim Leighton to be his number one goalkeeper for the tournament causing Andy Goram to quit the squad completely. He would never represent Scotland again. Goram would later say his decision was partly down to a desire to sort out personal matters back home and also to find a new club. Jonathan Gould, the Celtic goalkeeper was a last minute replacement.
As a youngster of only ten or eleven, I still remember the atmosphere building around town pre-game, so I cannot imagine what Paris would have been like. In the hour or so before the game, the streets were dead and everyone seemed to be watching the game. Many players including John Collins and Kevin Gallacher were quoted after saying that this game was effectively Scotland’s World Cup final given the magnitude of it.
Pre-game the players were out inspecting the Stade de France pitch, but with a Highland twist! Tosh McKinley, interviewed later by The Telegraph said, “What made Paris a bit different was that the entire squad turned up for the match wearing full Highland costume and I think the Brazilians were taken aback when we came out to inspect the pitch at the Stade de France in our kilts.”
Nerves were running high in squad, as you’d expect, as there was the fear that playing the current World Champions that they could embarrass you. Kevin Gallacher recalls the squads technique on dispelling some nerves pre match, “What I remember most is how that walk out on to the turf got to us. We couldn’t wait for the national anthem to come so that we could release some nervous tension. Everyone bellowed it at the top of their voices and it was really out of tune but that did the trick for us.”
Despite the nerves, there was a belief in the squad with John Collins saying, “No one gave us a chance, but we were well-organised and had determination. We believed we could get a result. We had a fantastic group, then. We had been together through the years and there had always been a relaxed feeling in the camp.”
That belief was tested four minutes in when the Brazilians took an early lead through Cesar Sampaio. Despite this set back (and fear of hammering) Scotland grew into the game and were awarded a 37th minute penalty after Kevin Gallacher being felled by the hero to villain Cesar Sampaio. John Collins stepped up to take it and was probably the most composed Scot on the planet as he tucked it away to make it 1-1. Collins would later recall about the penalty, “I just had to stay focused and at the time you don’t think about how much pressure is involved. It was only after the game, when I was sitting on the bus, that I thought: ‘If I’d missed that I’d be remembered for it for the rest of my life”
A defining memory from that game for me personally was Collins then went sprinting over to celebrate in front of thousands of Scottish fans in the packed Stade de France. An unexpected equaliser from Scotland who had been under intense pressure in the game till that moment.
It was one of those moments that you get used to over the years of following Scotland. The uncontrollable elation before being brought back down to earth with a sickening bump. Scotland 1-1 with the World Champions at half time, a truly magical moment. As I have come to learn in the intervening years, Scotland specialise in glorious defeat and this was the first time I was old enough to appreciate that fact. In the 74th minute, time seemed to stand still as Scotland conceded a soft yet cruel goal. Leighton made a save which was followed by a ricochet off Boyd, a lunging Colin Hendry on the line could do nothing to prevent a goal and being 2-1 down. Brazil, at the time the world’s most feared attacking side, were beating us thanks to a freak Tom Boyd own goal
Scotland threw men forward in the closing minutes and Craig Burley went close with a late shot being well saved by Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel but to no avail. There was no shame in a 2-1 defeat to Brazil although Craig Brown pointed to “shocking mistakes” when asked post match to reflect on the match.
Ultimately, the match proved to be the high point of the tournament for the Scots as the next two games against Norway and Morocco resulted in Scotland limping out of the World Cup with a 1-1 draw and 3-0 defeat respectively. In the years that have passed, as is well documented, Scotland have failed to reach a further major tournament It is therefore important to remember the rare occasions when Scotland appear on the big stage, rubbing shoulders with the big boys and produce performances that make the country proud even if the result is not what we were after. The eyes of the world were on Scotland and they did not let us down.