This blog was first written for Live Forever Football, a website dedicated to 90s football.
1990 is a landmark year for me and my love of football. I have very few memories prior to that, save for the signing of two Poles at Celtic shortly after a slightly bigger story broke about a certain former Celtic striker being usurped across the city to Rangers.
To be honest, it was the Poles who really caught my attention given my own family background connection with the country. When you’re the kid with the funny name, being able to properly pronounce Dariusz Dziekanowski and Dariusz Wdowczyk is almost expected. As it was, they were Jackie and Shuggie to many others in Scotland.
Both of Celtic’s Polish contingent played at Hampden in the Scottish Cup final in 1990, and indeed Wdowczyk is the lesser known penalty misser in the 9-8 shootout victory for Aberdeen. Poor Anton Rogan has the unfortunate honour of being the man who missed the most crucial penalty, and so Shuggie is rarely mentioned.
As I watched on at home that day, little did I know that just a week later I’d be watching both of those Poles play at Hampden in the flesh.
The first football match I was ever taken to was a Scotland v Poland friendly match at Hampden Park on May 19th, 1990. To this day, I can close my eyes and picture Hampden Park as it was back then from the terracing at the traditional Celtic end of the stadium. The sheer vastness of this footballing arena was truly breathtaking to a child who wasn’t quite nine years old yet.
The Celtic end of the stadium was open to the elements, but thankfully there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Even back then I noticed that the terracing opposite me was covered, but it never struck me as odd as I had nothing to compare that with. The thing that really struck me at the time was that the main stand to the left had a press box that looked like it could slide off the roof and onto the pitch at any moment.
The game itself is something I can only remember in patches. Scotland took the lead through Mo Johnston, but it was the equaliser that will live with me forever. With Andy Goram rushing off his line, Gary Gillespie didn’t notice this and when he attempted to head the ball back to him he instead looped the ball over him and into the empty net.
I never liked Gary Gillespie for that very reason.
But there was a bigger picture here. This match was one of Scotland’s warm up games ahead of Italia 90. For the fifth consecutive World Cup, Scotland had qualified for the finals once again. As I’ve hinted already, I’ve absolutely no recollection of the qualifying campaign, but for the record Scotland finished second in Group 5. Four points behind Yugoslavia, in the days of two points for a win, and just one ahead of France.
Norway and Cyprus completed the group, and it was arguably Cyprus getting a draw at home to France that made the difference. When you consider that Scotland only beat Cyprus away thanks to a 90th minute Richard Gough winner, you can see how close things were between the two.
Yugoslavia only dropped two points the entire campaign, a draw each against Scotland and France. With both teams drawing against Norway, admittedly Scotland doing so at home in the final game when a draw was all that was needed, the two winning their respective home games against each other cancelled themselves out too.
When the draw for the finals was made in December 1989, Scotland found themselves paired with Brazil for a third time in five World Cups. The other two teams in Group C were fellow Europeans Sweden who had topped England’s group and in doing so had seen off Poland, and the little known Costa Rica who had qualified for the finals for the very first time. Literally everyone in Scotland had failed to notice that they had actually topped the final CONCACAF qualification group, perhaps because CONCACAF was not a well respected confederation at the time.
In the build up to the finals, Scotland played a number of friendlies. Perhaps most noteworthy was Scotland’s 1-0 win over the then reigning World Champions Argentina thanks to a goal from Aberdeen’s Stewart McKimmie. Sure, there was no Diego Maradona in the team, and only three of the players who played against Scotland went on to start the World Cup final against West Germany that summer, but when you’re Scottish you take any small win you can get. Besides, beating reigning World Champions is a Scottish tradition dating back to 1967!
The other friendlies weren’t quite as impressive. A 1-0 defeat to East Germany and a 3-1 defeat to Egypt had come before the draw with Poland, while the final warm up match took place in Malta and saw Scotland narrowly beat their hosts 2-1.
By the time Scotland took to the field in Genoa for their opening group match against Costa Rica, Brazil had already beaten Sweden 2-1 the previous day. With Sweden seen as the main threat to Scotland finishing second behind Brazil, things were looking good.
Well, not everything. Scotland had turned up to play Costa Rica in what can be politely described as a white with thin yellow hoops jersey. How the traditional kit could possibly clash with the all red jersey of Costa Rica I’ll never know, but I distinctly remember thinking it didn’t look right to see Scotland not playing in the dark blue.
The choice of strip was the least of our worries though.
The first half didn’t seem to go too badly. Sure, the service to Mo Johnston could have been better, and sure it was still 0-0 at the break, but we’d get the breakthrough eventually. Wouldn’t we?
Four minutes into the second half, Geovanny Jara played a cheeky backheel that gave Arnaldo Cayasso a clear sight of goal. With only Jim Leighton in the Scotland goal to beat he fired the ball into the net to give Costa Rica a shock lead.
The expected Scotland comeback never materialised. In truth, it never looked like it would. A few good saves from goalkeeper Luis Gabelo Conejo aside, Costa Rica just weren’t put under the cosh as would have been expected. It turned out that Costa Rica were “nae mugs” after all, and went on to narrowly lose 1-0 to Brazil in the next match, a few hours before Scotland faced Sweden.
With both teams having lost their opening group match, this game was already looking like a “win or bust” for both sides. More so for Scotland though, given we still had Brazil to face in the final game.
With both teams now in their traditional kits, things were already looking a lot better. The fact it was a later kick off in Genoa and therefore not as hot and humid as the first match also seemed to help matters. Ten minutes into the game, Murdo MacLeod sent a corner into the box and Dave MacPherson flicked it on to Stuart McCall who was waiting at the edge of the six yard box. McCall slid in and fired Scotland in front. We were off the mark.
The game will never go down as a classic, and despite the good early start it took until just ten minutes to go for us to breathe a little easier when Mo Johnston tucked away the penalty given after Roy Aitken went down somewhat easily in the box, and Scotland had a 2-0 lead. A late consolation from Glenn Stromness latching onto a ridiculously long through ball didn’t stop Scotland picking up only our fourth win at the World Cup finals – the other three coming against Zaire in 1974, Holland in 1978, and New Zealand in 1982. Sadly, to this day it is also Scotland’s last win at the World Cup finals.
That win against Sweden gave Scotland a reasonable chance of progressing to the knockout stages for the first time. With 24 teams in the tournament, the top two from each group would both progress as would four of the six third placed teams. With Brazil top on four points, and Scotland level with Costa Rica on two, we were still in with a chance of being one of the four third placed teams if not one of the top two in our group.
Costa Rica’s game against Sweden would take place at the same time, and so what kind of result we needed was still to be determined. If Sweden could win, a draw would be enough to finish second. Even if Costa Rica won, a draw might still be enough to finish in one of the plum third place positions.
But then again, the final match was against Brazil.
In our two previous meetings with Brazil, we had done fantastically well to draw with the reigning champions in 1974, but the 4-1 hammering in 1982 after David Narey had given us the lead was of more immediate concern. The 1990 Scotland were nowhere near the class of the 1974 Scotland, but neither were the 1990 Brazil team anything like the quality they had in 1974 or 1982. They had only succeeded in beating Sweden by the same scoreline that we ourselves had managed, and even they had struggled to a narrow win over Costa Rica – a team we still felt like we should have done better against.
And so, with our usual bizarre optimism that could see us think getting a result against Brazil was possible having already lost to Costa Rica – and to be fair you only have to look at the 1978 World Cup results to see why we might think like that – it was off to Turin.
Scotland set out with the draw in mind, with Roy Aitken dropping back to play as a sweeper in a back five. The game itself played out exactly as you would expect of a backs-to-the-wall game. Everyone played their part to stop Brazil, most famously Murdo MacLeod who was completed sparked out after taking a free kick full on in the face not long before half time. It was no surprise when he couldn’t continue.
Gary Gillespie came on for him. I should have known then we were doomed.
With just eight minutes left on the clock, Alemao fired in a low shot from distance. Leighton probably should have held it, but instead he spilled it out to Careca. The striker managed to knock the ball towards the goal line under pressure from Gillespie but it was going wide. With the whole of Scotland willing the ball to run out of play substitute Muller, who had come on less than twenty minutes earlier for a youngster named Romario who would become a household name four years later, broke all our hearts by appearing on screen to tap the ball into an empty net.
Im guessing for those in the stadium it was more obvious he was going to score, but for those of watching on at home it was substantially more of a tease.
There was still time for Scotland to give us hope, but a late Mo Johnston chance was somehow tipped over the bar by Brazilian goalkeeper Taffarel and Scotland were stranded on two points. With Costa Rica beating Sweden, they progressed along with Brazil to the knockout stages while across Scotland we consulted our wall charts to see what we needed to happen to be one of the four best third placed teams.
To be honest, we already looked doomed. Both Argentina in Group B and Columbia in Group D had finished third on three points, and with Austria in group A also on two points with two goals for and three against like ourselves, it was pretty clear what the teams in Group E and Group F had to beat. Should it come to it and only one of Scotland or Austria could qualify, then lots would have been drawn to decide which it would be. To this day I have no idea what that means! What’s wrong with tossing a coin?!
But we still had to get to that point first. With both groups E and F finishing the day after ours, we were left in the bizarre scenario where for a full 24 hours Scotland didn’t know whether to go home or not.
In Group E, Uruguay already had a point while South Korea had none. Spain also had two points, but they were playing Belgium who had four so unless they lost they were going to be of no help. The best case scenario from this group was a comprehensive Belgium win over Spain to wipe out their goal difference, or a small South Korea win over Uruguay to ensure they’re worse goal difference didn’t surpass ours.
Both Spain and Uruguay won, ensuring the latter became another third place team on three points.
Group F was too tight to call. With England on three points, Ireland and the Netherlands both on two points, and Egypt on one point, the only thing that would help Scotland here was for an England win over Egypt to ensure they didn’t come into the equation, and a win for either Ireland or the Netherlands – ideally by more than a goal but a 1-0 win would have been enough given the goals scored column would be in our favour.
England did indeed beat Egypt to top the group, but Ireland and the Netherlands drew 1-1, ensuring both of them progressed to the knockout stages and finally Scotland and Austria were sent home.
Interestingly, Ireland and the Netherlands actually did have to be separated by the drawing of lots, which Ireland won to finish second in the group to the Netherlands third place. Given that meant Ireland faced Romania while the Netherlands faced West Germany, it made all the difference.
With the tournament progressing without Scotland, we watched on as neutrals and tried not to get too carried away with just how annoyingly good World in Motion was as a World Cup song. When you consider Scotland’s equivalent of “say it with pride, the lion shall roar in the sun” it’s no wonder more of us could probably do the Barnes rap even today than could even tell you anything about our song back then.
Fish, in case you’re wondering. Ask your parents if you’re still wondering.
Meanwhile, on a patch of grass somewhere in Scotland, I was falling over trying my best to copy David Platt’s last minute winner against Belgium. That’s when I wasn’t wheeling away screaming “Schillaci!!!!!” after scoring a goal of course.
Italia 90 may have been a disappointment for Scotland, one forever tainted by the memory of Costa Rica, but it inspired me as a young football fan in a way I’d never known before.
And as for Costa Rica…
Sixteen years later, I went to the World Cup in Germany. Scotland hadn’t qualified, but fortunately Poland had and I’d been fortunate enough to win tickets in the ballot to go to their final group match against Costa Rica.
So, draped in a saltire, wearing a Celtic jersey with Zurawski printed on the back, I went to Hannover to watch Poland exorcise some of my demons with a 2-1 win courtesy of two goals from Bartosz Bosacki. There was even a point in the game where Costa Rica were winning 1-0. The game might have been a dead rubber by this point in the tournament, but it certainly made a certain Scotsman feel just a little bit better.