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Saturday, 28 June 2014

The day we (nearly) won the World Cup

25 years ago, Scotland hosted the FIFA under-16 World Cup. I attended quite a few of the games with some football-loving friends, having been part of the small minority who appeared to give a damn about the tournament in the early stages.
During the group phase, the authorities tried to entice fans by staging ‘double-headers’ in which the paying customers got to see two games for the price of one. Even with that incentive, those early games didn’t attract much support, with attendances at some grounds barely scraping into four figures. We were among a crowd of around 6,000 at Hampden to watch Scotland open the tournament with a dismal draw 0-0 with Ghana, but public interest started to pick up as our campaign gathered momentum. Attendance at the matches had doubled by the time we played our group decider against Bahrain at Fir Park.
Bahrain, as it happens, became our second favourite team because of the stylish football they played. They had a cracking wee player (I think his name was Abdulaziz) that we particularly admired. He was ‘old school’ in the sense that he liked to run at defenders, often outwitting bigger, stronger boys with his guile and skill. He reminded us a bit of Pat Nevin, although –to his credit- he didn’t actually wear a Cocteau Twins t-shirt on the field or carry a New Order limited edition white vinyl 12-inch around with him.

As the Scots fought their way to the knock-out stages, public interest grew further still. Indeed, such was the excitement that the kick off in the semi-final at Tynecastle had to be delayed, as 30,000 punters crammed into the ground to watch our boys take on a gifted Portugese side that featured several members of their so-called ‘golden generation’, including Abel Xavier, Miguel Simao and Luis Figo (who, even then, was quite majestic on the ball). That game went as many of us had expected. The technically-gifted Portugese enjoyed most of the possession and created most of the chances, but we just knew that there was something magical in the air. Brian O’Neill scored with a header from a corner and somehow the obdurate young Scots (coached by Craig Brown and Ross Mathie) held out for a nerve-jangling, backs-to-the-wall 1-0 win. The very concept seemed difficult to absorb: a Scottish football team had qualified for the World Cup Final!

So, on the warm afternoon of 24th June 1989, 58,000 folk turned up at decrepit old Hampden to see our lads acclaimed as world champions. We travelled in hope, but also a degree of expectation. As tournament hosts, we had undoubtedly got the rub of the green a couple of times (particularly against the Portugese), but we also had a fantastic young team.
This time, surely, it was going to be our turn? Ian Downie gave us an early lead before, midway through the first half, Paul Dickov added a glorious second. I can still visualise –from my standing position on the old North Terracing- his stylish chip over the Saudi goalie. We were playing brilliantly. They might as well give us the cup now, we all thought, because this is going to end up about 5-0. Not only were we going to win this thing, but these lads were going to develop and grow and become actual world champions by 1998 or 2002. It was surely only a matter of time.

Alas, there were several things that we had failed to take into account.

There was the fact that the Saudis were dirty big cheating buggers who were all aged about 25 and were over seven feet tall. Did they feed these lads steroids with their breakfast cereal back in Saudi Arabia? There was the fact that they had already come back from two goals down earlier in the tournament and (SPOILER ALERT) had also won a penalty shoot-out.

The main thing we had overlooked, however, was a metaphysical concept that -until that point- had been way beyond our ken. As innocent lovers of the beautiful game, we had not yet come to the crushing realisation that there was an immutable law of the universe stating that Scotland fans can never, ever enjoy a triumph on the world stage. How innocent we were.

After that glorious opening spell, our lads started to wilt in the heat. In spite of the Saudis being reduced to ten men –men being the operative word- we blew that two-goal lead and ended up drawing 2-2. We even missed a penalty during the course of the game. Brian O’Neill was the player who fluffed his lines and, to rub sulphuric acid in that gaping wound, the poor lad also missed the decisive penalty in the shoot-out at the end of extra-time. “Oh, how cruel a mistress is fate!” I remember the guy next to me shouting at the time. Or maybe he shouted: “Jesus fucking Christ!” My memory plays tricks on me these days.

The Saudi lads may have taken ‘our’ cup, but for a couple of weeks, the country was under the spell of a brave, dedicated and talented bunch of young footballers. The Scotland team in that final was: Will, Bain, Beattie, Marshall, McMillan, Bollan, O'Neil, Lindsay, Downie, Dickov and McGoldrick. The used substitutes were McLaren and Murray.

Some of those lads drifted out of the game, but quite a few of them went on to have successful playing careers. But whatever happened to them, whatever jobs they are doing now, I hope they are comforted by the knowledge that, for what they achieved in the summer of 1989, they will always be heroes.