Cris Freddi continues his series building up to the World Cup finals with a look at Scotland's record in the tournament

Sorry, there’s no getting away from it. Scotland’s record in the World Cup finals is dead poor, we all know that. Only four wins in 20 matches, two of them against Zaire and New Zealand. But the most humiliating thing is that nothing better has ever been expected of them. Except once, and that ended in the biggest let-down of all. Despite regular wins over England, they haven’t been a world force for 60 years.

Their first attempts on the World Cup were the most embarrassing by a so-called leading nation. The qualifying test for the 1950 finals was preposterously easy: finish in the top two in the British Championship and you’re there. For some reason, their FA announced they would take up the invitation only if they won the title. They lost 1-0 at Hampden to England and refused to go, despite pleas from England’s captain Billy Wright among others. You can’t beat Brian Glanville’s verdict: “baffling insularity and pique.”

Four years later it bore some famous fruit. This time Scotland deigned to take part despite losing to England at home, but travelled without a single world-class player and no natural captain after leaving out big George Young. Faced with group matches against world champions Uruguay and the fancied Austrians, they tuned up by playing Norway and Finland. The 1-0 defeat by Austria was slightly unlucky, the record 7-0 defeat by Uruguay wasn’t really. And their manager, the first they’d ever appointed, resigned between the two games. A shambles.

In 1958, more of the same, though it looks better on paper. After doing well to qualify ahead of Spain, they drew with a Yugoslavia who’d just beaten England 5-0 – but then let themselves down in team selection. Two of the squad, Archie Robertson and Tommy Docherty, were sent to watch Paraguay play, reporting back that they were “rough and fit and good”. Despite this, caretaker manager Dawson Walker (Matt Busby hadn’t recovered from the Munich air crash) left out hard cases like Dave Mackay, Sammy Baird and Docherty himself and picked a forward line made up of the slim and the small. The Paraguayans brushed them aside 3-2, their only win in the group. Then John Hewie hit the post with a penalty against France and that was that, for the next 16 years.

In the 1962 qualifiers, a skilful but fragile team, perhaps Scotland’s best since the war (Crerand, Baxter, Law, St John, John White) led 2-1 in a play-off before losing in extra time to a rugged Czechoslovakia side, who went all the way to the final. A genuine case of what might have been. Four years later, deprived of key players by English club managers (including Scots like Busby and Shankly) they lost a decisive match 3-0 in Naples. Then a narrow defeat in Hamburg kept them out of the 1970 finals.

Their return, in the 1974 tournament, has gone down as a gallant failure: the first side to be eliminated with-out losing, a draw with the holders Brazil – but they’re just statistics. The Scots played keep-ball in a 2-0 win over an appallingly weak Zaire, there was no natural goalscorer up front (Denis Law, now 34, won his last cap) – and the sight of Billy Bremner, essentially a ball winner, dropping back to take the ball from his keeper showed how little was coming through from midfield.

It should have been very different in 1978 – and “different” would be one word for it. For the first and only time, Scotland were among the favourites, rated by respected coaches like Michels and Miljanic. Their voluble manager gave the clear impression that Scotland’s third match, against Holland, would be to decide who finished top of the group. After all, as he pointed out, “my name is Ally MacLeod and I am a born winner.”

Some of his team selections were real eyebrow raisers. Picking two inexperienced full-backs against Peru’s dangerous wingers, persisting with Rioch and Masson though they were off form and older than the “portly and elderly” Teófilo Cubillas, who scored twice. Masson missed a penalty, Willie Johnston took a banned substance, Lou Macari criticised MacLeod in print, none played for Scotland again. The skilful and gutsy win over eventual runners-up Holland only emphasised the frustration. MacLeod kept his job on a casting vote but resigned soon afterwards.

Since then, Scotland have had no luck in World Cup finals but haven’t exactly made their own. The next two tournaments saw them in “Groups of Death” (Brazil and the USSR in 1982; West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay in 1986) and they ran into Brazil again in 1990 and now 1998. But some of the wounds have been self-inflicted: Willie Miller and Alan Hansen colliding under a long ball to set up the goal that knocked them out in 1982; Steve Nicol missing an open goal against a ten-man Uruguay in 1986; Jim Leighton fumbling a shot against Brazil in 1990.

France ’98 appears to promise something similar. Leighton is likely to be in goal against Brazil again (Scotland haven’t beaten them in eight attempts, scoring only twice) and there’s been a perennial problem with unfancied teams: a draw with Iran in 1978, New Zealand pulling two goals back in 1982, defeat in the first match of 1990 after manager Andy Roxburgh claimed “We have nothing to fear from Costa Rica.” Typically, if the past is anything to go by, the easiest match may be against Norway, the last team to beat Brazil. All in all, Scotland’s chances of reaching the second round for the first time look about average, but so does the squad, and the same has been said since they first entered the World Cup. Expect the usual struggle of hope versus experience.

From WSC 136 June 1998. What was happening this month

Comments (1)
Comment by tempestinaflathat 2012-02-27 13:05:50

It's interesting to read this, 14 years later. Who would have thought in 1998 that, before much longer, merely qualifying for a tournament would have seemed a huge success?

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