By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (May 11, 2006) — Quite appropriately, the greatest moment in Scottish soccer history — Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland in the 1978 World Cup — was in vain. Sure, Scotland went on to beat the Dutch 3-2 and Gemmill’s slalom through the better part of their defense ranks among the best goals ever scored, but it came too late to salvage the hash the Scots had already made of their trip to Argentina.
Hard as it is to believe, the mistakes made by way of preparing for Argentina surpassed those that hampered their chances in 1974.
First of all, it would be hard to overstate the extent to which manager Ally McLeod created unrealistic expectations. There were ominous signs. Brazil had handled Scotland with aplomb in Rio the previous summer, several key players were injured or out of form, and they had lost their last warm-up match against England at Hampden Park. But none of these deterred McLeod from telling the faithful what they wanted to believe: Scotland could win the World Cup, in large part because he was the manager (“I’m a winner!”). He was raking in the money and, as he explained privately to Archie Macpherson, who might best be described as the John Motson of Scottish soccer, this meant that he had to uplift the supporter’s spirits: “I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to keep them going. I’ve got to keep it up. They lap it up.”
And how they lapped it up. There was a song called “Ally’s Tartan Army,” which sold 230,000 copies. There was even a man who claimed he was going to rent a U-boat, replete with a German sub-commander, to travel to Argentina. And the tens of thousands lined the streets to see them off. One of the throng included a man who had come running naked from his shower when he heard the team bus was turning down his street.
As for the players, well, there were no bouts with alcohol, as there had been in ’74, but they were very unhappy with their accommodations. They were served the same soup every day and the Olympic size swimming pool, which might have raised their spirits, was empty. During a team-talk, one of the players, Lou Macari, asked, “Why don’t we fill up the pool with the bloody soup?” They became virtual prisoners of the hotel after three players had caused an incident by trying to re-enter the premises by climbing a fence. The players, who had left through the gates, were just returning from an innocent stroll, but the authorities were frightened because political insurgents were said to be everywhere. The players might have handled these deprivations better, a report by the SFA claimed, if they had been told how much money they stood to make.
Worst of all, McLeod, like his predecessor Willie Ormond in ’74, did not adequately scout his opponents. In fact, he never saw their first opponent Peru play, which might explain why he repeatedly claimed that left back Martin Buchan would have his hands full trying to subdue Juan Carlos Oblitas. The problem was that Oblitas played on the left and thus would be Stuart Kennedy’s responsibility. After the match, Buchan complained that he was not told that the man he ended up marking, Juan-Jose Munante, was so fast. It was common knowledge in South America, but McLeod apparently did not know which winger was which.
Scotland started out very well against Peru, having scored just before the quarter hour, but Peru soon took control of the midfield, overwhelming the two out-of-form players — Bruce Rioch and Don Masson — McLeod had stuck with. Munante and Oblitas were also too much for Buchan and Kennedy. The turning point occurred in the second half after Masson, whose life would never be the same, missed a penalty. A few minutes later, Teófilo Cubillas struck a vicious shot from outside the area after Rioch ceded him too much space. Cubillas, who went on to have a fabulous career with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, wrapped up the match with a free kick, which he curved over the wall with the outside of his right foot.
As if the result was not bad enough, after the match one of Scotland’s players, Willie Johnston, became only the second player in World Cup history to test positive for drugs. Unlike Diego Maradona in ’94, the way he played did not suggest that he was using amphetamines. One Scottish fan went so far as to complain that his was “the sort of performance that gives pep pills a bad name.” Another remarked, “I thought they were tranquilizers.”
Matters went from awful to worst during their next match against Iran. Scotland did manage a tie, thanks to an own goal, but they played so ineptly that McLeod kept on cupping his face with his hands, appearing scarcely able to face what was unfolding, as the traveling supporters chanted, “Resign, resign!”
With one match left, Scotland still had a mathematical chance to qualify for the second round. They, as McLeod pointed out, just had to beat Holland by three goals. Asked whether Scotland could score three goals, Dutch keeper Jan Jongbloed responded, “Yes, but not in ninety minutes.”
Jongbloed was wrong. McLeod, as one SFA official later explained, had effectively abandoned ship after the Iran match. “Ally hid under the bed. He locked himself in his room. We never saw him, and neither did the players much. The team were utterly rudderless. He shirked his responsibilities.”
Despite this fact — or perhaps because of it — Scotland finally played up to its potential. The side fell behind, which was quite unlucky, but they recovered and took a 3-1 lead after Gemmill scored.
Nothing I could write by way of describing the goal would compare favorably to what Eduardo Galeano’s wrote in Soccer In Sun and Shadow:
The Scottish player Archibald Gemmill got the ball from his countryman Hartford and was polite enough to ask the Dutch to dance to the tune of a lone bagpiper.
Wildschut was the first to fall, his head spinning, at Gemmill’s feet. The he left Suurbier reeling in the dust. Krol had it worse: Gemmill put it between his legs. And when the keeper Jongboled came at him, the Scot lobbed the ball over his head.
Scotland needed just one more goal to advance, but that dream ended three minutes later, when Johnny Rep struck out of nowhere from 25 yards. He later admitted, “I just shut my eyes and hit out … I suppose it could have gone anywhere.” Be that as it may, Holland advanced, and was unlucky to lose to Argentina in the finals, while McLeod and the Scottish tried to take solace in a great win and a great goal. Both have become part of Scottish lore, but it was, as one English columnist wrote, “like losing the world war and then inventing the atomic bomb.”
In the movie Trainspotting, the video replay of it used to help inspire an orgasm and one of the characters declares, “Phew! I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!” The movie, though, in an important sense, is about the decline of Scottish culture, youth escaping into heroin and the stated belief that, “It’s SHITE being Scottish!”
After the ’78 World Cup, the momentum to gain more political autonomy for Scotland staggered. There was a general feeling, as one prominent supporter of the movement said, that the debacle in Argentina “certainly transmitted itself to the political field. It was a case of, ‘Here we go again. Are we ever going to be able to do anything right ourselves?'”
In my view, Scottish soccer has never recovered. Instead of focusing on playing with style, the emphasis is now on being “Bravehearts,” which seems to mean giving one’s all by way of compensating for a manifest lack of skill. Scots once firmly held the conviction that their soccer was superior, and that, as Jim Baxter put it, “this English lot, they can play nane,” but now they aspire to nothing more than imitating them.
As the character in Trainspotting put it, “Some people hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to get colonized by.”