Retroscarf - France '98
Pre-tournament hype and Brazil
FRANCE ’98 is a tournament that will live long in the memory for many Scotland fans. It’s strange to think that this was the last major international tournament we qualified for until David Marshall’s penalty save from Alexsander Mitrovic 22 and a half years later ensured the wait was over.
In terms of the build up to that World Cup, I don’t recall a build up on the scale of this one. Of course, it’s difficult to get into the hype for a World Cup or European Championships that we don’t qualify for, and there’s only so much “Anybody But England” people can take.
This World Cup was special from a Scottish perspective for one reason – we kicked off the tournament against the World Champions Brazil on 10 June 1998.
From the moment the draw was made in December 1997, the nation began counting down to that opening day. I was so excited that I set aside one of my brand new VHS tapes I got for Christmas and labelled it “FIFA World Cup, Brazil v Scotland, 10 June 1998.” Well I think it was because I can’t place my hands on it now, will need to raid my Mum’s loft again!
As the tournament edged closer, I went into full geek mode by watching as many preview and retro programmes as possible on BBC and STV. What really stands out though was a screenplay on STV called “The Game.” Set in 1978 starring Alex Norton, Forbes Masson, Phyllis Dyller and the late Andy Gray, the play centred around three guys watching Scotland at the Argentina ’78 World Cup, portraying the hopes, dreams and despair of Scotland fans enduring that tournament, with the wife giving out treats at half time and full time. I was delighted to find this on YouTube recently and recommend that you take 90 minutes of your time to watch it.
Before we knew it, Wednesday 10 June 1998 had arrived. Numerous businesses and schools closed early to ensure that people got home to watch the game, which kicked off at 4:30pm. Having left school and on a break before starting College, I had the whole day to take it all in. The opening ceremony was the usual cheesy nonsense before the players walked out onto the impressive Stade de France, built with this tournament in mind. The players had to endure another 10-15 minutes waiting for speeches by the Presidents of FIFA and France, followed by the French National anthem, another speech by some teenage girl about the code of conduct or some crap like that, then eventually the anthems of the two sides actually playing!
Six months of waiting was finally over as Scotland kicked off the FIFA World Cup Finals of 1998, though it looked as though the Scots had forgotten as we got off to the worst possible start. Five minutes in, a Bebeto corner was met at the near post by the head of Cesar Sampaio, probably the smallest man in the box, and into the net. Shit! This wasn’t supposed to happen, we didn’t concede from set pieces. Maybe that extra waiting on the pitch for Joao Havelange and Jacques Chirac to speak put the players into a dose that they didn’t wake up from in those early stages!
There was a fear that Brazil would run away with it, and we needed veteran goalkeeper Jim Leighton to be at his best to deny Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo to keep the score line at one-nil. However, we rode that storm, grew into the game and got a break when Kevin Gallacher was upended by Sampaio in the box. Penalty for Scotland!
What an opportunity this was, to draw level against the World Champions, billions of eyes watching across the globe. It was also two years on from Gary McAllister’s missed penalty at Wembley, so the tension was cranked up for every Scot watching at home, in bars or lucky enough to be at the Stade de France. Luckily, John Collins was the coolest man in the stadium in that moment and he brilliantly placed his kick low into the right hand corner of Taffarel’s goal, despite the Brazilian goalkeeper going the right way.
That image, and Collins subsequent celebrations afterwards running towards the Tartan Army and pointing to the name and number on his back, is locked into Scottish Football folklore. That moment was as good as winning the World Cup itself, because the latter is unlikely anytime soon.
Into the second half, and Brazil upped the tempo early on with a couple of Rivaldo efforts going narrowly wide. After that, we were fairly comfortable, keeping the World Champions at arms length, it was looking good for a draw. Then disaster struck! Dunga’s superb pass reached Cafu. Leighton did well to block his effort, but the ball then ricocheted off Tom Boyd and the ball trickled into the net. It was cruel, there was nothing Boyd could’ve done, it was typical of our luck at international tournaments.
Despite a late rally, Scotland had lost, but earned lots of plaudits for the endeavour put into the game against the defending World Champions and pre-tournament favourites. Now with the glamour game out the way, it was onto the two games that mattered in our group against Norway and Morocco.
Norway frustration and Moroccan nightmare
Their game finished in a 2-2 draw, which suited us down to the ground, and now it was on to Bordeaux to face the Norwegians. Was this a must win game if we were to have a chance of going through to the knockout stages? What was certain that a loss would see us eliminated after just two games. Our approach was to attack and it was all one way traffic in the first half as a number of Scotland chances were created but not taken. Christian Dailly sent an early header across the face of goal with no takers waiting, Gordon Durie had a looping header that drifted wide, and Dailly had another header that was cleared off the line. Leighton was only called into action once, saving from Stale Solbakken, and the Scots went in at halftime knowing we should’ve been in front.
Those missed opportunities came back to bite us at the very start of the second half when Vidar Riseth’s cross was headed home at close range from Harvard Flo. At this point, Scotland were heading out, a change had to be made. Darren Jackson was sacrificed for Jackie McNamara, freeing up Craig Burley to play in the central attacking midfield role that served him well at club level for Celtic that season. The impact was immediate as Burley ran onto a great ball from David Weir to lob the ball over Frode Grodas to level the score. He almost had a crucial second soon after, but his effort from the edge of the box was well saved by Grodas.
The draw was a mixed bag, disappointment that we didn’t get the win that would’ve put us within touching distance of the knockout stages, but relief that we didn’t get eliminated at the same time. Now it was onto the final game in Saint Etienne to face Morocco. The Africans showed against Norway that they were a handy team, particularly with the talents of Mustafa Hadji, and were somewhat unfortunate not to win the game. Even against Brazil, where they went down to a convincing 3-0 defeat, there was still enough in their performance for Roberto Carlos to suggest they were the more dangerous team.
Despite those warnings, we still fell into the trap of being somewhat over confident that we could do the business against the Moroccans, and that Brazil would gain revenge on Norway for a friendly loss twelve months earlier. The media highlighted the faults of their keeper Benzekri, who had made a couple of errors in the Norway draw and looked unconvincing against Brazil, and the message was to get as many balls into his area as possible to trouble him.
Well, it turned out to be OUR goalkeeper who had a game to forget. Midway through the first half, a routine long ball over the top caught the Scotland defence off guard, allowing Bassir to lash the ball past Leighton, who was too easily beaten at his near post. At the other end, the Scots were struggling to test Benzekri, with a long range effort from Gordon Durie that went narrowly wide being the closest thing we came to a goal. Despite being behind, there was no reason to panic yet, there was still 45 minutes to turn this in our favour and get that second spot.
Less than two minutes into the second half, however, our hopes were extinguished. Once again a ball over the top caught us out as Hadda got in behind David Weir and his effort was palmed into the air by Leighton. We all agonisingly watched on as the ball eventually came down from the air and bounced into the net as Leighton desperately tried to retrieve the situation. It was a horrendous blow, me and the mates I watched with all turned to the back of our seats with heads in our hands. Although there were 43 minutes left, we knew deep down that there was no way we were coming back from two goals down to win and that our World Cup dream had died.
If there were remote possibilities of getting back into the game after that second goal went in, they were gone a few minutes later when Burley was red carded for a cynical challenge on Bassir from behind. Dying his hair bleach blonde a few days earlier, it just made Burley even more silly in that moment and it summed up our night. Bassir got a late third to rub salt into our wounds and completed a miserable night.
It was a limp way to exit the tournament. There was no “glorious failure” chapter here, that belonged to Morocco after news of Norway’s late winner against Brazil filtered through, and the manner of our defeat was embarrassing. Not even Morocco exiting could cheer us up, in fact most felt sorry for them in the way they’d missed out on qualifying, we of all nations have been in their shoes too often. After all the pre-tournament hype, the excitement about taking on Brazil, the hope we could join them in the next round, going out this way was sore.
Being too used to qualifying regularly for major finals, this was our sixth out of seven World Cup Finals, and four out of five combined World Cup and European Championships in the nineties, we all thought “it’s not long til the next one!” Yeah, only another 23 years…
Editor Note: Our thanks again to John Bleasdale for another excellent look back at Scotland's adventures at Major Finals. We can't wait to make new memories this summer. You can enjoy more behind the scenes footage of Scotland in France in this documentary shared by the Scottish FA.