With a global television audience of millions of viewers, Scotland faced world champions Brazil in the opening match of the World Cup. Yes, that happened even if it sounds more and more surreal as the years go by without reaching the greatest masterpiece of football.
That was in 1998 in France and despite losing an early goal to Cesar Sampaio, Scotland struggled to equalize through a John Collins penalty before Tom Boyd’s own goal won the game for Brazil in the manner typical scottish. Craig Brown’s team followed up with a draw against Norway and a loss to Morocco.
It was the end of the road in terms of Scotland’s regular appearance and first-round exit from the World Cup. We qualified six times in seven attempts between 1974 and 1998, only missing out in 1994. Although the fans were used to qualifying, the opposite is true today, but after ending our great exile from the tournament last year in the European Championship, Scotland hopes to reach Qatar in November.
I was too young to really appreciate the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Probably better given Scotland’s loss to Costa Rica which made the task of getting out of a group for the first time even more difficult. In 1998, I was in my teens and football was everything. It still is today although it is also a race. Back then I was denied the opportunity to go to France due to exams at school and my three uncles refused to take me, not wanting to be burdened by their young nephew. To be fair, I am now the age they were in 1998 and I can see the other side of the argument!
Qualifying for Euro 2020 worked out on many levels for Scotland. The main factor was ending our exile in a big men’s tournament but added to that, it was what he did for the country. Now we think we can qualify for the big tournaments. The children watching are inspired to follow in the footsteps of the teams just as they did when the women’s team qualified for Euro 2017 and the 2019 World Cup. Crowds are at Hampden Park now that COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted . The fans want to commit to a good squad of players who have once again believed in the country.
Not many in the current squad will remember France ’98 that well, aside from goalkeepers Craig Gordon and David Marshall, who, like me, are in their 30s. That shows once again why qualifying for this tournament is important and special. There is a generation of fans and players who don’t remember Scotland being the focus of the world when they faced Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Dunga and company at the Stade de France.
Of course, this time we know who awaits us if we can qualify. The United States, Iran, which gave Scotland trouble in Argentina in 1978, and the Auld Enemy. This would be the first match of the oldest match in international football to be played outside of Scotland or England. The recent meeting at the European Championship showed that Scotland can compete with England, who would finish runners-up in the tournament, even if we didn’t win at Wembley.
It’s all well and good looking back at past World Cups and how we should have done better in them, but now it’s about getting there.
No one is in doubt about how difficult Ukraine will be in Wednesday’s semi-final. No one can imagine how difficult it must be for players in Ukraine to have to concentrate on a football match when such atrocities are happening at home. The fact is that there is a match and both teams want to win it. Scotland has to block the understandable emotional support Ukraine will get from many neutrals. They have a job to do and that is to get to the World Cup.
It’s hard not to sound insensitive when writing the above sentence because this is just a football game, it’s not a matter of life and death. Ukraine want to win this to reach their first World Cup since 2006, but simply taking the field at Hampden Park is symbolic enough, it shows a defiance of their Russian aggressors showing they will not be stopped and will represent their country on a world stage. . . Even better if they can do it in the World Cup.
Whoever wins, they will travel to Cardiff to face Wales. Recent meetings with Wales have proven difficult for Scotland, but memories of 1977 at Anfield and 1985 at Ninian Park tell the story of Scotland getting the job done even if the latter was in tragic circumstances with the passing of full-time manager Jock Stein.
And with all of that, the World Cup is so close for Scotland, two games between them and the biggest show on earth, but it still seems so far away.
In 1998, there was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to keep us updated and entertained. Tony Blair was still a fresh-faced and popular Labor Prime Minister, and the SPL had just been created to bring Scottish football into the 21st century. It’s always good to look back. I watched Scotland’s last World Cup game to date against Morocco with my late grandfather at his social club in North Edinburgh. You cherish those memories more with the passing of time.
What I also remember is him lecturing me after throwing away my Scotland scarf when Morocco got their third goal. He told me to put my scarf back on and continue to support the team no matter what. I’ll do it again on Wednesday night, but also with a microphone in hand.