North of Hadrian’s Wall we’re looking on enviously as another World Cup without Scotland gets underway. It’s a common occurrence these days to find the Scots tiptoed on wooden crates, peering over metaphorical stadium walls and into the machinations of a glamourous tournament that we find ourselves excluded from. Not even the sainted Steve Clarke couldn’t get us there, his team choking in the Hampden sunshine against a Ukrainian team that the rest of the world was delighted to see win. Even the Welsh are there this time around, and they never make the World Cup finals. Panto villains they may be, for daring to beat Ukraine in the final qualifying match, but it’s a slanderous title that anyone in a Jimmy hat and the ability to boogie would happily take. Or maybe not.
Qatar mate? No thanks. It’s a World Cup tainted with bribery and scandal, terrible abuses of human rights… and no beer in stadiums. For many (most?) fans, football and beer go hand in hand. You can look on rightly aghast at the Qataris’ appalling crimes against their fellow men and women, but no beer at the game? Forget that! A dry Tartan Army is nothing short of an oxymoron. It’s just as well we didnae qualify.
I was talking to my son about the World Cup, about how Scotland was always there when I was his age, how it was a given that we’d turn up every time and crash out on goal difference. Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon to find Scotland the only home nation side at the finals, something that millennials might find hard to believe.
Me and my pals, hopped up on Top Deck and Wotsits and laterally real beer and whatnots cheered the highs; the Narey toe poke against Brazil, Strachan’s opener v Germany, Mo Johnston’s winner from the penalty spot against the Swedes, John Collin’s opener v Brazil of course, and bemoaned the lows; the own goal in the same game, the Nicol miss v Uruguay, Costa Rica, the calamity of Miller and Hansen as they contrived to let the Russians in and send us out.
There’s been plenty of disappointment when you consider the phrase ‘Scotland at the World Cup’ but none more so than Argentina ’78. In a tournament featuring just 16 countries – stick that in yer smug pipes, England and Cymru – Ally McLeod had us believe we’d come back as champions, music to this football daft 8-year old’s ears.
A thumping to Peru and their beautifully expressive banana-bent free kicks saw the nails being lined up against the coffin. A draw against lowly Iran brought the first hammer down. Archie Gemmill might’ve scored
one of the greatest ever World Cup goal s against the swaggering Dutch and momentarily halted the flow of the hammer, but Johnny Rep’s long-distance goal – reducing the deficit in the match to just one goal in Scotland’s favour – would ultimately see to it that we’d be back at Prestwick Airport after just three matches.
Fun fact: ‘Out on goal difference’ is written in Latin on Scottish £5 notes.
1978 was my favourite World Cup. The final was late on the Sunday night, but even with school in the morning, I was allowed to stay up and watch it. I can see it all now as I type. It was the snow of tickertape that turned the pitch a litter of green and white. It was the crowd, free-standing and ever-morphing, a shape-shifting human organism rather than the regimented rows of hand clappers and horn blowers we’ll see on our TVs over this month. It was the way the nets hung loosely from the goals, the way the photographers sat untidily behind the goals, almost on the field of play. It was all about Kempes and Passarella and that iconic Argentinian strip; silky, stripy and with a badge as big as a baby’s head sewn on. An awakening to the greatest show on earth, not the money-obsessed horrorshow it’s become today.
The players looked different then too, even the Scottish ones in their identikit bubble perms and impressive moustaches. These days, all the players look the same; ripped, buff, toned ‘n tanned. Back then, they were individuals with swagger and character, socks at ankle length, shirts outside the shorts and with a maverick approach to dribbling.
Plus, they were as hard as nails. Tackles were as brutal as their haircuts and never shirked. No quarter was given. They got, as you’ll hear them shout from the sidelines at boys’ football on any given Sunday, stuck in. Souness. Wark. Kenny Burns. Hard men with hard stares who played for the shirt – a trio familiar with the sculpted art of the bandito moustache, as it goes.There was none of that rolling around you’ll see at any match you might choose to watch in the next month. With VAR but a twinkle in some mischievous fun prevention officer’s eye, a lot of the dirty stuff was got away with, and all in exactly 90 minutes too, not the 100 or so that’ll routinely see this World Cup stretch to.
Back in ’78, ‘sports’ and ‘science’ were two words that never sat together in the same sentence, let alone the one phrase. Half the players smoked – John Robertson on the wing for Scotland was powered by 20 Benson & Hedges a day, the Brazilian Socrates similarly so. The Scottish ethos of work hard and play harder was forged as much through Tennent’s as training. Once we’re back to that, maybe then we’ll be on the inside again, at the greatest football tournament of them all, counting down the matches until goal difference sends us homewards tae think again. I watch on enviously.
Machine – There But For The Grace Of God Go I
Anthemic, socially inclusive disco. Are you listening, Qatar?