Scotland’s 1978 World Cup was awful

Far from being Scotland's worst World Cup performance, Argentina 1978 was their best, says Ken Gall

For many Scots, the images of Argentina 78 are burned deep into the psyche: Ally MacLeod, head in hands, with the der­isive taunts of the Tartan Army ringing in his ears; the dis­graced Willie Johnston being interrogated by Frank Bough – ah, sweet irony – about the dangers of illegal substances; the terrible records, the atrocious carpet advertisements, the grue­some hairstyles.

The names and characters do not diminish in the memory, even after 21 years – Chumpitaz, “El Loco”, Eskandarian, the slightly eerie Van de Kerkhof twins. The old school funky afro of Teófilo Cubillas met the white trash home perm of Alan Rough, a contest in which there was only ever going to be one winner. The fateful send-off at Hamp­den – a kind of pre-departure welcome home, if such a thing can be imagined – attracted 30,000 people to watch a group of men being driven around in a bus. Clearly, hubris was an unfamiliar concept to Macleod.

Argentina 78 is now looked back on by Scots as the end of  an era in which the nation had deluded itself into believing we were a major force in world football. Argen­tina can be seen as the symbolic end to the Scotland of Morton, Steele, Baxter and Law, and the beginning of the Scotland of Durie, Boyd, Tosh McKinlay and – God help us – Matt Elliott.

Well, we need to put an end to all that. The time has come for an agonising reappraisal. Far from being Scotland’s worst World Cup campaign, Argentina 78 was – by far – the best. Far from being a sorry tale of despair, humiliation and incompetence, it was possibly the high point in Scottish football history. It was a truly glorious failure, as opposed to the truly inglorious shambles inflicted on us virtually every four years since.

This may seem like madness to some, but consider the evidence. To qualify, Scotland had to knock out the reigning Euro­­pean champions, Czechoslovakia, as well as a strong Wales squad. The squad was sprinkled with players of real quality – Dalglish, Souness, Jordan, Masson, Rioch, Buchan. There was no question in those days of the Scotland manager negotiating with barely known Jamaican forwards or lumbering English centre-halves on the basis of some tenuous Com­monwealth or grandparental connection to Scotland.

The opener against Peru was when Scotland were rumbled, the chickens came home to roost, the scales were lifted from our eyes and so on. But it should not be forgotten that Peru – boasting, of course, the finest international football strip known to man – were no mugs and, in Cubillas, had one of the most dangerous forwards in the world.

Incidentally, Don Masson’s missed penalty in that game can be seen as one of the turning points in recent British history. In an alternate universe, Masson scores, Scotland win the match and go out of the competition honourably in the second stage; the feelgood factor carries over to the 1979 devolution referendum, which is won; the SNP, concentrating on a newly devolved Scotland, does not vote down the Callaghan govern­ment in that year’s confidence vote at Westminster; it survives and Margaret Thatcher misses her chance to become prime minister. One hopes that Masson can sleep soundly in his bed.

The 1-1 draw with Iran was, of course, an outrage – Eskandarian’s own goal made one almost want to weep with embarrassment (or laughter). Yet just about every so-called “major nation” has suffered such results since. There are, after all, no easy games. And then, of course, we have the Holland match. The Dutch, even without Cruyff, were probably the best team in the world and, as has been well documented, would have won the World Cup had it not been for some dubious refereeing and Rensenbrink hitting the post with a minute to go.

And yet Scotland beat them and, in doing so, scored perhaps the greatest goal in World Cup history. The only real competition to Archie Gemmill’s classic would have to be Maradona versus England in 1986. For all its merits, Michael Owen’s goal against Argentina in 1998 was all about pace and athleticism; Gemmill’s was about grace and beauty – concepts which are, admittedly, not the easiest to associate with the man.

Scotland went into the 1978 World Cup as one of the best half-dozen or so teams in the world and as a reasonable outside bet for the semi-finals. For a few glorious minutes they led the best team in the world by three goals to one. For those reasons alone, Argentina 78 should be rem­embered with pride and affection by many who have tried feverishly to blank it from their minds for the past 20 years.

From WSC 157 March 2000. What was happening this month

Comments (3)
Comment by Barnstoneworth 2011-11-17 13:24:28

It's exactly the Holland match that left everybody scratching their heads, wondering what might have been if McLeod had only picked his strongest XI in the first match, instead of waiting until the third. The Scots were genuinely unlucky in 1974 – the only team to play Zaire before the Leopards all but went on strike, the near-tings against Brazil and Yugoslavia, remaining the only unbeaten team in the tournament – but too many of the 1978 wounds were self-inflicted.

Comment by dalliance 2011-11-17 16:35:14

Many people feel that Scottish football has historically overachieved, but this actually overlooks a major flaw in our national football psyche that held us back from achieving much, much more.
Scottish football long suffered from managers and coaches who paid little heed to what seemed common sense to the rest of the footballing world, namely thorough physical preparation, some sort of tactical plan and a working knowledge of the players you would be up against.
McLeod was simply the highest profile example of this repeated failing, mindless optimism and relentless enthusiasm identified as the defining traits of his reign Training sessions with the national team for him involved getting his players to play tig.
It's ironic that when Scotland started to get managers like Craig Brown who reversed the trend by overachieving with weak resources rather than underachieving with strong resources, the nation's support was scornful. Sometimes supporters really do get the team they deserve.

Comment by satchmo76 2012-05-16 12:32:19

It only became a "glorious failure" in the last match. Before that, it was as bad as described. Iran were thumped by Holland and Peru and gave Scotland an o.g. but the Scots could still not win. Peru was more forgivable (decent side, QFs in 1970) but the failure to even watch them in warm-up games was ludicrous.