By Ken Pendleton
USSoccerPlayers (April 21, 2006) — Tommy: Doesn’t it make you proud to be Scottish?
Mark “Rent-boy” Renton: It’s SHITE being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the f*#king Earth! The most wretched miserable servile pathetic trash that was ever shat on civilization. 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.
The above quote, which comes from the 1996 movie “Trainspotting,” could easily be applied to the current state of Scottish football. That was not always the case. Until the late 1970s, the Scots justifiably felt that their football was superior to that played by the English. The results they achieved did not often match those attained by their former conquerors, but that never undermined what author Alan Sharp described as “the completely held conviction of their own superiority.”
In contrast to the gray, pragmatic approach adopted by the auld enemy, the Scots, in Sharp’s view, played the game to achieve aesthetic perfection: “The emphasis on close control, the preoccupation with dribbling and the ornamentation of the short passing game, not like today’s to retain possession, but out of a belief in embroidery as an essential element of expression.” As Sharp concedes, trying to play like this “is deeply and destructively neurotic and indulging it is neither a coherent way of playing football nor of living your life.”
In 1974, the Scots qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1958. In keeping with their tradition, there was talent and style to spare, but nevertheless they failed to progress past the first round. Since they were placed in a tough group, which also featured Brazil and Yugoslavia, and did not lose a match, they were treated like heroes upon their return. But the way they prepared for this tournament portended the disaster that would befall them in Argentina four years later.
To their credit, they qualified for West Germany with a match to spare, which felt all the sweeter because the English had failed to qualify at all. After England failed to get the needed home win against Poland, Denis Law, perhaps the best player Scotland ever produced, politely commiserated with an English reporter, but then screamed, “You F#*ckin’ beauty!” as soon as he was out of earshot.
It would be nice to say that, at this point, preparation began in earnest, but, as Scottish writer Ian Archer explained, that is not really the Scottish way: “If your average Glaswegian was asked to climb Mount Everest in a fortnight’s time, he’d go and have a few drinks, turn up at Base Camp wearing nothing but a Rangers scarf and a pair of jeans, bum a packet of fags and then start climbing. Scotland’s footballers never really believed they were in a World Cup until they saw the whites of Zarois eyes in their first match and by then, it was a bit too late. There is no other way.”
So it was. After traveling to scout their first opponent, Zaire, manager Willie Ormond shut his notebook after just 10 minutes once he concluded that “They cannot play.” Once the final squad came together, one player, the instinctive right winger Wee Jimmy Johnstone, got so drunk that he had to be rescued after trying to row across the Atlantic. After the team arrived on the continent, consuming champagne to spare en route, he and Billy Bremner, who was the heart of the team, were caught singing and drinking after curfew. There was a big debate about whether one or both should be sent home, and relations with the press deteriorated to an alarming degree. For example, on more than one occasion a player flipped off the press corps after scoring a goal in a warm-up match. Upon their arrival in Frankfurt, one Brazilian journalist even asked, “Are they sober today?”
The Brazilian players, by the way, were having their own problems with the way their preparation was being handled, especially the abstinence policy that was in effect: “This is supposed to make us world champions. World champions of what, masturbation?” asked defender Luis Pereira.
Ormond’s lack of preparation for the Zaire match cost Scotland dear. They won 2-0, through first half goals from Peter Lorimer, who struck a fierce volley with his renowned right foot, and Joe Jordan, who may have been offside when he headed the ball into and past the hapless Zaire keeper. But they were clearly unprepared for how well the Zarois could play. As their center-half Big Jim Holton put it, “Let’s face it, we underestimated them. For fifteen minutes I wondered what the hell was going on, where had this lot come from, playing stuff like that.”
Ormond instructed them to push further forward in the second half, but Zaire was causing so many problems that Bremner — one Scot who surely put results before style — deliberately restrained Scotland’s attack.
The damage that had been done became painfully clear when Zaire, bitter because payment promises had not been kept, collapsed and lost 9-0 to Yugoslavia. Given the importance of goal difference, Scotland knew that they had to beat either Brazil or Yugoslavia to qualify for the second round. How close they came.
Scotland seemed entirely unprepared for what Brazil threw at them for the first 20 minutes, but Bremner, in what was perhaps his finest hour, organized and rallied the midfielders, and the rest of the match more or less belonged to Scotland. Lorimer and Jordan could have scored, and Bremner certainly should have. A simple ball played into the box found him, completely unmarked, a few yards from the Brazilian left hand post, but somehow he failed to connect. For Archie Macpherson, the voice of Scottish football, Bremner’s failure was very telling: “To call it a miss is perhaps to do less than justice to it. It was more an admission of our lack of self-belief at crucial times.”
Be that as it may, Scotland, buoyed by outplaying Brazil, entered the Yugoslavia match with high hopes. Yet, they could not get the win they needed. Yugoslavia, committed and well organized, though certainly not negative, held out and even scored the crucial goal in the 81st minute. Scotland, through Jordan, equalized two minutes before time, but it was too late. Scotland was out.
The transgressions they had committed during the build up were forgiven — in fact, they were treated like conquering heroes, fitting, it was said, for the only team that had not lost a match during the tournament — but the same kinds of mistakes would be repeated in Argentina four years later. And this time the harm would prove to be irreparable.