World Cup Throwback – France 98: When the Scots took centre stage!

TWO long decades have passed since Scotland’s last appearance at any major tournament, and the pain at missing out doesn’t ease any.

Five European Championships and five World Cups have passed us by as campaign after campaign ebbed away into failure. Instead of getting ready to face the World’s best, we’ve become the warm up act for Peru and Mexico!

Of course, twenty years ago today was a far different story as we got ready to kick off the World Cup against defending champions Brazil!

Arguably, it was the most prestigious match that Scotland have played in to date. Whilst it might not be regarded as the most important, in other words tournament progression didn’t depend on it, there is not another game we’ve played in that matches the glamour and worldwide attention that the opening game of the tournament brings.

There was a lot to be excited about this particular opening game. It was the first World Cup containing 32 Nations, it was facing Ronaldo, the best player on the planet, and it was Brazil, the most successful side in World Cup history. To top it all, it was all being played in the magnificent Stade de France, the new 80,000 capacity stadium in Saint Denis, built for this tournament.

Brazil, of course, were heavy favourites and were confident enough to name their starting eleven a month before the game. Their plans suffered a blow, however, when Ronaldo’s strike partner Romário, their talisman during their glory in America four years earlier, was ruled out with injury. Veteran Bebeto slotted in as his replacement.

Scotland had made some big calls for their own in both squad selection and who would be the lucky ones to start in the curtain raiser. Probably the biggest shock was Manager Craig Brown’s decision not to select Ally McCoist who, despite being 35, was in decent goal scoring form for Rangers leading up to the tournament. It was a call Brown confessed he got wrong.

The next big decision was who would fill the midfield position vacated by regular Captain Gary McAllister, ruled out by injury. There were calls for Craig Burley, who scored 15 goals for newly crowned Scottish Champions Celtic that season, to move into his natural central midfield role. However, the position went to his club teammate Darren Jackson, with Burley asked to continue at right wing back that he’d played throughout the qualifiers. Colin Hendry was named Scotland Captain in McAllister’s absence.

Scotland Team that faced Brazil: Dailly, Calderwood, Leighton, Hendry, Burley, Durie, Jackson, Gallacher, Collins, Boyd and Lambert.

After a weird opening ceremony that featured giant space-hoppers and flowers, Scotland kicked off the France ’98 World Cup. The Scots fancied their chances and knew if they could keep things tight at the back early on they’d have a chance.

Five minutes in, the worst possible start imaginable unfolded as Brazil took the lead from a straightforward set piece. Bebeto’s in-swinging corner was met at the near post by Cesar Sampaio, one of the smallest men in the penalty area, and his glancing header snuck in at Leighton’s near post.

It looked for a while as though that the Brazilians would romp to victory and Leighton, appearing at his fourth Finals, was called upon to make impressive saves from Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo. Add to that the scare of a near own goal by Hendry, who’s poor attempted pass back header snuck just wide of the post, and it was testing times for Brown’s men.

Having seen off that scare, Scotland grew into the game and their patience was rewarded when they won a controversial penalty. Christian Dailly’s knockdown into the penalty area was meant for Kevin Gallacher, who went tumbling over in front of Sampaio. It looked soft but the referee pointed to the spot.

John Collins was entrusted with the responsibility of putting Scotland level with the World Champions. You could feel the tension as he stepped up, with memories of McAllister’s famous Wembley miss two years earlier still very fresh. The man plying his trade in French Football with Monaco was the coolest man in the stadium, confidently slotting his penalty right into the corner past the despairing dive of Taffarel. One of the most iconic moments in the history of the National team had been created.

For long periods in the second half, it looked as though Scotland were going to hold out for a draw as Brazil struggled to break us down – then disaster struck! With 17 minute left, a great pass from Dunga picked out Cafu. His effort was well blocked by Leighton but the ball ricocheted off Tom Boyd’s chest and trundled into the net. It was a cruel blow for the Scots, who had put so much effort into the game and came away with nothing but pride.

BBC News Report of the opening ceremony and match of France ’98 between Brazil and Scotland

Losing that opening game was disappointing but not too disheartening as two more important games lay in front of us. First up was Norway in Bordeaux and, despite creating so many chances in the first half, the Scots fell behind minutes into the second half thanks to a Havard Flo header. Brown then made tactical changes, with Jackie McNamara replacing Jackson and Burley moving into midfield, and they made an instant impact as Burley lobbed Norwegian keeper Grodas to level proceedings.

That point set Scotland up for their final group game with Morocco in St Etienne, with the knowledge that victory, coupled with Norway failing to beat Brazil, would see us finally reach the knockout stages of a major tournament at the tenth attempt. It turned out to be a miserable night as two Bassir goals either side of a goal by Hadda, courtesy of a blunder by Leighton, secured a 3-0 win for the Moroccans against a pitiful Scotland side, who also saw Burley red carded shortly after the killer second goal. Morocco’s joy was short lived as news filtered through that the Norwegians had beaten the World Champions, meaning they joined the Scots in an early flight home.

Who would’ve known that awful night in St Etienne would be the last game Scotland would take part in for at least twenty years, as a gradual decline hit our proud nation. There are many reasons why we haven’t set foot at a European Championships or World Cup since 1998, but it’s up to Alex McLeish and the SFA to put together the steps to take us back to elite competition once again.

France ’98, ultimately, ended in disappointment having exited once again in the group stages, and we can’t even use the glorious failure tag that has often followed us like a bad smell. However, it is still a tournament that Scotland fans can look back on fondly having went toe to toe with the World Champions in the prestigious opening match, and came so close to a famous result.

The moment John Collins’s penalty nestled into Taffarel’s net that brought us back on level terms with Brazil is still a moment to savour for the long suffering Scotland Supporters.

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.