The Summer of 98
It’s nearly World Cup time again and I love it. Day after day after day of several games of football, all shown live on TV. I’m old enough to remember when, unlike today, live televised games were a novelty reserved for cup finals. As such, getting to see so many games over such a short period of time has always appealed to the football fan in me. Even with the massive choice of live games we get now, I still get excited when a summer international tournament comes round.
Of course, I’m Scottish, so it also comes with disappointment.
World Cup 2014 in Brazil is the latest in a long line of international competitions for which we’ve failed to qualify. The World Cups in Japan & South Korea in 2002, Germany in 2006, and South Africa in 2010 have all come and gone without Scotland. Throw in the European Championships in Holland & Belgium in 2000, Portugal in 2004, Austria & Switzerland in 2008, and Poland & Ukraine in 2012, and Brazil 2014 will be the eighth tournament in a row that we’ve had to watch from afar. 16 years on from France 98, we’re still waiting to pick ourselves from that disappointment.
It wasn’t always like that. From 1974 to 1998, Scotland only missed out on qualification for the World Cup once – 1994. Six out of seven possible World Cup appearances. Despite missing out on 1994, the 1990s actually saw us qualify for four tournaments out of five! Italia 90, Euro 92 in Sweden, Euro 96 in England and the aforementioned France 98. I really was spoiled in my formative years.
The summer of 1998 was a really big time in my life too. I had just left school for the final time, and I was heading off to University in the Autumn. I’d hated school, so this was a new and promising start for me. There were no worries that summer, I was looking forward to what was to come. My sixth year exams were done, and although I wouldn’t be getting the results until the August, I wasn’t concerned with what they might be as my University place was unconditional. I was always fairly confident with exam results anyway. I had a habit of being fairly accurate with my gut feeling of how they had gone.
Better still, Celtic were champions.
There was a little bit of Sod’s Law in that. Celtic clinched the first championship I could remember just days after school had finished, so I didn’t get to enjoy it quite as much as I could have. After all, I’d had nine in a row rammed down my throat in the years before, so I was denied that payback. Of course, Wim Jansen quitting days later tried to cut the feet from under us as well. But as much as replacing the manager yet again was frustrating, we were still champions and that couldn’t be taken away from us.
So already on a high for football reasons, it was even more exciting knowing that not only were some of the Celtic players joining up with the rest of the Scotland squad… but we were going to be taking centre stage as we opened the whole tournament with a game against the holders Brazil.
Brazil seemed to be frequent opponents for us. A draw against them in 1974, a gubbing from then in 1982, a narrow defeat to them in 1990… we seemed to be playing them every eight years. We really should have gone to Germany in 2006!
I still remember the excitement building up to that opening match. I had spent that morning trying to find a shop that was selling the new Scotland jersey so I could be wearing it at home when we took to the field in the Stade de France in Paris. I eventually got one at the Forge Retail Park well in time for the game and put it on immediately. But why would we be so excited about Scotland – who are hardly the best team in the world – playing the World Cup holders Brazil? Surely we were just going to get gubbed again?
Well, the World Cup has a habit of throwing up shocks on opening day. Prior to 2006, the opening game would be played by the holders – who qualified automatically – and which ever team they were drawn to face first. Since 2006 the holders have had to qualify, so the opening game is now between the host nation and which ever team they are drawn to face first. Having said that, 2002 winners Brazil, 2006 winners Italy and 2010 winners Spain have all qualified for the last three tournaments anyway!
You’d expect the holders to win, but curiously that was something of a rarity. Since the 1966 holders England had beaten Romania in 1970, no other holders had won until 1994. The 1970 winners Brazil drew with Yugoslavia in 1974, the 1974 winners West Germany drew with Poland in 1978, the 1978 winners Argentina lost to Belgium in 1982, and the 1982 winners Italy drew with Bulgaria in 1986. Even the first World Cup I remembered – Italia 90 – saw the 1986 winners Argentina lose to Cameroon. The fact the 1990 winners Germany had narrowly defeated Bolivia in 1994 only suggested to us that we were due another shock. Sadly that shock wouldn’t come again until 2002 when Senegal beat the 1998 holders France.
Our 1998 opener didn’t start well. After all the opening ceremony, and the two anthems and the kick off of the actual game, defender Cesar Sampaio scored in the first five minutes to give Brazil the lead and we started to fear the worst. It was a very badly defended goal to concede. It was pretty clear that Brazil were miles better than us, but despite the bad start Scotland were a bit more solid after the goal. As time wore on in the first half we hadn’t conceded any more so there was always a chance we could nick something. All we needed was a break, and we got just that towards the end of the half when Cesar Sampaio fouled Kevin Gallacher in the penalty area.
I swear it took forever to get this penalty taken. The Brazilians protested about the award – like the referee was ever going to change his mind for a perfectly good decision! But while me and probably every man, woman and child watching on was nervous as hell, one man wasn’t. John Collins, a former hero of mine in his Celtic days, stepped up and cool as you like tucked away the penalty. Scotland were level with Brazil and we held on to that until half time. Cue fifteen minutes of taking stock and pinching ourselves to make sure it was real.
Of course, it didn’t last. With quarter of an hour left, Cafu found himself in behind the Scotland defence. He couldn’t quite knock the ball into the net as the shot hit Jim Leighton and bounced away from goal. But as it did so, it hit Tom Boyd and headed back towards goal. Colin Hendry was powerless on the goal line to prevent it going in and Brazil had their lead back. As much as Tom Boyd gets ridiculed for scoring the winning goal for Brazil, there are two things to remember. One, he couldn’t do anything about it. The ball hit him after bouncing higher than expected. Two, had the ball not hit him, Ronaldo was behind him. With Leighton out of position you’d probably have put your mortgage on Ronaldo scoring anyway.
Norway and Morocco were the other two teams in our group, and I remember watching their game after ours that night with interest. It finished 2-2, and I thought Morocco were the better team. Well they had the lead twice, and one of the goals Norway got was an own goal. Still, it also made me laugh than the two goal scorers for Norway were Eggen and Chippo. Sounds like an order in a restaurant. I’m fairly sure that the David Baddiel and Frank Skinner programme that was on during France 98 started a game off the back of those two scorers where you tried to make the funniest phrase from joining two names of players together. Cocu Kohler was a particular favourite. Rekdal Sellami also featured in this Norway v Morocco game actually.
Norway was our next game, and was a game we really had to win. Everyone had points on the board except us, so while a draw wouldn’t eliminate us, it would mean our fate wasn’t in our own hands. Unfortunately, the draw is what we got. After a goalless first half, Havard Flo gave Norway the lead in the opening minute of the second half. It was another poor goal for Scotland to concede. A simple cross to the back post from future Celt Vidar Riseth and an unmarked header from Flo meant we now had another mountain to climb.
Fortunately, twenty minutes later a long ball through to Craig Burley gave the Celtic man a chance to chip the ball over the goalkeeper for an equaliser. Scotland pushed for a winner but it wasn’t to be, and with Brazil beating Morocco the holders were already through as group winners with a game to spare regardless of what happened in the final games. That would prove crucial… but not for us.
With Norway on two points and both Scotland and Morocco on one, Norway appeared to have the advantage. However, as they faced Brazil in the final game both Scotland and Morocco could afford to think that a win in the last game would be good enough to take them through. After all, Brazil would beat Norway and strand them on two points, right? So all we had to do was beat Morocco, right?
The final group game was a big event for me. I never usually watched football with my friends as so many of them supported Rangers and those that didn’t, unlike me, had season tickets for Celtic Park. But when it’s Scotland we’d all be backing the same team for a change. Nevertheless, the Morocco game was the first time I’d watched any game with them as we all went round to the same house. All of us still hopeful of the results we’d need to go through to the latter stages for the first time.
The other thing I remember from the build up of this game was Craig Burley’s hair. The late 1990s saw a craze of bleaching your hair to the point that it was almost white. The first person I remember doing it was Paul Gascoigne while he was at Rangers, and while Neil Lennon would also do it for a while at Celtic in 2000, Craig Burley decided to do it to celebrate scoring at the World Cup. Oddly, he wouldn’t even be the last to do it in France as the entire Romanian team did it after beating England in their final group match that saw them qualify for the next round.
Midway through the first half, Leighton was beaten at his near post by a powerful shot from Bassir. Or F****** BASSIR! as he was known from then on. That joke doesn’t work when it’s written down, but in my accent it works a treat.
Anyway, yet again we were a goal behind. It stayed that way until half time, and got worse just after the break when an attempted chip from Hadda failed to beat Leighton… only for Leighton’s block to go up in the air and land behind him. Watching him tracking back trying in vain to stop the ball from crossing the line was cringeworthy.
So, 2-0 down and needing a big performance to get back into the game, what do you not need in that position? Burley to get sent off for a wild challenge, that’s what. Hard to claim mistaken identity with that hair right enough.
We knew the game was up then. When f****** Bassir got his second and Morocco’s third with five minutes to go thanks to a bit of a deflection it was hardly a surprise. The real surprise was in the other game. Bebeto had given Brazil the lead late on in the game, but even later still Tore Andre Flo had equalised. It was still 1-1 when Bassir scored his third goal, so the Moroccans would still have thought they would have been going through. Sadly for them, Norway won a penalty with just a couple of minutes left which Rekdal scored. Morocco might have been the better team, but it was Norway who were going through with Brazil.
I actually felt sorry for them that night, despite the pasting they’d given us. They deserved to go through, but in the end it didn’t matter what Scotland or Morocco did. Even if we’d won that game we’d still have been out. My friends didn’t seem to fussed about Morocco though. The friend whose house it was, he was inconsolable. I remember turning round to say something to him, only to find his face buried in his girlfriend’s lap… and not in a good way! I don’t think I’ve even been that inconsolable about a game of football. I was gutted at Fir Park in 2005, and in Seville in 2003, but never to that same extent.
Mind you, I still can’t listen to Scotland’s World Cup song from that year. Not because it was bad – they were always bad – but because the lyrics actually upset me! World Cup songs seem to have died out, so we may never again see the charts filled with the likes of John Barnes rapping, or John Gordon Sinclair telling us he has a dream, and maybe that’s for the best. Then again, maybe it’s a shame that we’re missing out on making footballers seem a little more normal and how they can’t sing any better than us.
In 1998, the team weren’t really involved in the song. They were in the video of course, which was a redo of a Brazilian Nike advert, but the song was just Del Amitri singing about “Don’t Come Home Too Soon” – a reference to the fact that it would be nice for Scotland to play more than the three group games for a change. The lyric that gets me every time is the one “but if I have a dream at all it’s that for once you won’t be on that stupid plane”. The song is hardly upbeat throughout, but at that particular part even the music sounds sad. It just seems to hit a chord with me, if you’ll pardon the pun.
So with Scotland “on that stupid plane” once again, I remember looking forward to doing it all again next time. Maybe next time we’d get out of the group stages. Maybe next time we’d score more than two goals. Maybe next time we’d win a game.
Sixteen years later I’m reduced to “maybe next time we’ll qualify”. And “maybe someone other than Craig Burley will have scored our last goal at a major tournament”. Yes, sixteen years on and my feelings regarding Craig Burley have changed possibly more than anything else in that same period!
It’s depressing to think there’s a generation of Scots out there who haven’t seen Scotland in a major tournament. It’s even more depressing when the Scotland players playing in 2014 make statements about being a wee boy the last time we played in one, as Scott Brown did this week. Or worse, that they are too young to remember it at all. We’re not that far away from that now. Liam Henderson, who scored on the night Celtic clinched the title this season, would have been two years old when Scotland played in France 98. I doubt he remembers it. My football memories seem to start when I was eight years old, and while I know others start earlier I don’t know too many whose start that early.
I hope we correct this soon. Gordon Strachan is the first manager in a while I’ve had any faith in ending our drought. Walter Smith showed promise, but turned his back on it to go and give Rangers one last hurrah. Alex McLeish might have, but he too left for club football before proving anything either way with the national team. I really hope Gordon Strachan’s head doesn’t get turned, because under him we seem to be getting the best of our limited abilities. With that and the increased size from 16 to 24 teams for Euro 2016 we have our best chance in a long time to qualify again. Germany will be favourites to win our qualifying group, but the others in our group are teams we are quite capable of beating. Poland, Republic of Ireland, Georgia, Gibraltar. They’ll be thinking the same about us of course, and with family ties to both Poland and Ireland I’m at least hopeful of having someone to support at the next tournament! I’m still hopeful it’s Scotland and maybe even one of the other two right enough!
But perhaps more fittingly, Euro 2016 will take place in France – the same place we last featured at all. I think that would bookend our absence nicely, don’t you?
In the meantime, I’ll watch the action in Brazil this summer from afar. I have no one to support in it, so I just hope the games are entertaining and we get the festival of football I’ve loved since I was a boy. Each tournament has something special about it and I can’t wait to see how this one progresses.