I was just 12-years-old when Scotland last played in football’s biggest tournament. For me, it was the first World Cup I can remember them playing in, and it would be fair to say that at the time, I was more than a little excited.
As soon as the school bell rang to signal the end of the day (as well as the start of football’s greatest competition), I pushed through the crowd of pupils (and teachers) who were desperate to make it home in time for the big game: the curtain-raiser of the France ’98 tournament.
I sprinted home with my Scotland flag draped over my shoulders, flapping horizontally behind me and made it just in time to proudly chant along to the national anthem with the Scottish players (with the exception of John Collins, who was too busy winking at the camera, much to the appreciation of housewives back home).
In front of a television audience of millions, the task the Scottish team faced was a daunting one. Our wee nation was up against Brazil, the reigning world champions, whose star, Ronaldo, was a 22-year-old double winner of FIFA’s World Player of the Year award in 1996 and 1997 (not that this had dampened my expectation of a shock win for the Scots).
However, just 228 seconds into the contest, the South Americans took full advantage from Rivaldo’s swerving corner kick. Cesar Sampaio rose above the (literally) toothless Craig Burley and powered a header past Jim Leighton, our knobbly kneed 39-year-old goalkeeper. Ouch.
I’m surprised to this day that I didn’t cry when that goal went in. I had whipped myself into such a frenzy about the match that I was certain – absolutely certain – Scotland were finally going to prove to the world what a great team they were and play the Brazilians off the pitch. Now, we were losing 1-0 and the commentators were suggesting that the score line could get embarrassing for Craig Brown’s team if they let their heads go down at the early set back.
Did they let their heads go down? No. Did they play the Brazilians off the park, like I had optimistically predicted. Erm, no. But slowly, the team started to work themselves back into the game.
Paul Lambert and Darren Jackson began to link up in midfield, while Kevin Gallagher’s pace up front was giving the slow Brazilian back line a few problems. Colin Hendry – or ‘Braveheart’ to the Scottish tabloids – was having the game of his life.
Then, in the 37th minute, the unthinkable happened. During a rare foray into the Brazilian 18-yard box, Gallagher was cynically tripped by the Brazilian goal scorer – and the referee awarded Scotland a penalty! I was practically frothing with excitement (I think the strawberry laces and flying saucers I had been nervously munching during the match contributed to this). At first, I was jumping around as though we had won the World Cup, but then I realised that we had merely been presented with a very missable chance to equalise. As Italians will attest, scoring a penalty against Brazilian goalkeeper Cláudio Taffarel is no mean feat.
I stood a few inches in front of the television, knowing that other football fans across the country would be doing exactly the same. As John Collins, the ultra-suave Monaco midfielder, prepared for the spot kick, for the first (and until now, only) time in my football-watching life, I was unable to look. I quickly realised this was a mistake, because regardless of the outcome of a penalty, there is cheering. From behind the protection of hands, I heard a roar from the crowd. Scored or saved? I peeked out, just in time to see the Scots wheeling away in delight! 1-1!
Soon after, the referee blew for half-time. So far, so good. Not only were we level with the world champions, we deserved to be. I could barely believe it!
After the restart, though, Brazil moved up a gear and, for sustained spells, bombarded the Scottish goal with shot after shot, chance after chance. A defensive master class from team captain Hendry and some well-timed blocks by Colin Calderwood helped to keep the score level, with just 20 minutes remaining. Were we about to start our World Cup campaign with an unlikely point, or would one of the samba stars score a winner that would break Scottish hearts?
As the match entered its 73rd minute, I watched in horror as Brazilian right-back Cafu raced onto a ball clipped over the heads of the Scottish defence. His shot was parried by Leighton, but ricocheted into the net off Tom Boyd’s shoulder. Time seemed to slow down as the ball bounced over the line. (For some reason, watching replays of Colin Hendry fall to his knees in despair as the ball crosses the line just a few in front of him was particularly painful to watch.)
Craig Brown’s men were unable to find a second equaliser, and as the full-time whistle blew, I realised the childish naivety of my pre-match prediction of a sensational 3-0 victory for the Scots.
So, the South Americans began the defence of their title with an unconvincing win, while the Scots suffered the agony of a narrow, undeserved defeat. To his credit, at least manager Craig Brown refused to implement a game plan of damage limitation against a team ranked 1st in the world (Scotland were ranked 41st at the time).
Once again, it was a case of glorious failure for tartan army to dwell upon, but in this instance, the word ‘glorious’ certainly applied.