Fluffed penalties, late goals and becoming the first nation to be eliminated from the World Cup finals without losing – Scotland are the best at missing out
4 September ~ Despite already dropping four points at home – and twice losing 3-0 away – Scotland fans go into tonight’s Hampden clash with Malta still hopeful of finishing second in World Cup qualifying Group F. It’s partly down to Friday’s 3-0 dispatching of Lithuania. But it’s mostly because the Russia 2018 qualifying criteria states just one second-placed European nation – the one with the worst record – won’t advance to the play-offs. We’re confident that’ll be us. If a sickeningly painful, horribly “last-ditch” elimination scenario exists, Scotland will find it.
At West Germany 74, we became the first nation ever to be eliminated from the World Cup finals without losing a match. By the time Morocco hammered us 3-0 in our last game of France 98 – or any tournament – some Scotland fans were slightly relieved. Brazil’s shock defeat by Norway in the group’s other match would have rendered a Scottish victory in Saint-Étienne painfully irrelevant. In the intervening quarter century, at another four World Cups and two European Championships, we’d had our fill of “heroic failure”.
Needing at least a draw in the final match of only our second finals, Sweden 58, Charlton’s John Hewie struck France’s post so hard with a penalty the rebound cleared the box as we lost 2-1. Even at the national humiliation that was Argentina 78, with just one point, secured by an Iranian own goal, and winger Willie Johnston sent home for failing a dope test, Archie Gemmill scored the official goal of the tournament in our last game, against eventual finalists Holland. This put us within one goal of the second round. We promptly conceded again but Scotland dominated, won, and generally began justifying the hype the very moment it became too late.
The oxymoron “glorious failure” masks a consistently fatal inability to put away the group minnows. But at nine major tournaments Scotland have been thrashed just three times. Playing well against bigger nations, usually with a sickening twist in our final match, lends elimination a tragically heroic sheen. Failure to beat Switzerland by more at Villa Park gifted the Dutch our Euro 96 quarter-final spot; but we’d also have gone through if England’s David Seaman hadn’t allowed a Patrick Kluivert trundler through his legs, the same night, at Wembley.
A Brazil winner nine minutes from time in our final match wasn’t a sufficiently cruel way to leave Italia 90: the best third-placed teams progressed in that tournament and a draw between Uruguay and South Korea the next day – in a different group – would eliminate them at Scotland’s expense. Daniel Fonseca waited until the 91st minute to score the only goal in Udine. It bettered even Mexico 86, when a win against a Uruguay down to ten men after a minute would put us through – but they bit, spat and hair-pulled to the 0-0 they needed. At Spain 82 Graeme Souness only equalised late-on in our final, must-win match with the Soviet Union to revive the hope needed to salt the wound.
But getting out of the finals kitchen for two decades hasn’t spared us the heat of perverse exits. This decade we’ve scored twice at Hampden against each of Spain, Germany, England and Robert Lewandowski. Yet Scotland won none of these qualifiers, despite always scoring equalisers and, against Poland and England, coming from behind to lead with sublime goals: the roof is always lifted off the stadium before it collapses in on us. So, away to Slovenia in October’s final group match, we’ll probably win by one goal shy of the margin needed to leapfrog Montenegro for that eighth, final play-off berth. Or we’ll make the play-offs – and draw Italy. Alex Anderson
Photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photos: Scotland fans during the European Championship qualifier against Republic of Ireland, 2014