First Tango in Paris

The next biggest thing to playing in the last game of the World Cup is playing in the first one.

By Mike Gibbons

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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One useful leveller on the day was the warm-up; due to the lengthy World Cup opening ceremony, both sets of players had to warm-up in the changing rooms and there wasn’t time for any ground staff in Paris to water the pitch.
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A point would’ve been a great start for Scotland with Norway and Morocco to follow, but as with 1982 and 1990 the Brazilians intervened with devastating effect.

Few shops are as closed as the World Cup final. In 20 tournaments to date there have only been 19 official finals, with FIFA’s barmy decision to have a final-round group stage in 1950 the one anomaly. It’s rare enough anyway, coming around just every four years. Most players never get near it. An appearance is reliant on all kinds of factors, but key is nationality. Only 12 nations have ever contested a World Cup final. Spain were the most recent entry into that club in 2010; the 11th were the French in 1998, the tenth were the Dutch, way back in 1974. That, of course, is as it should be. It’s the biggest game in the most popular sport in the world, and justifiably elitist. Yet if you’re in the swathe of nations that don’t frequent the biggest occasion on planet football, fate can occasionally chuck you a bone. At the World Cup, the next biggest thing to playing in the last game of the tournament is playing in the first one.

On June 10, 1998, Scotland arrived at the Stade de France in Paris to contest the opening game of the 16th World Cup. The television audience was an estimated 500 million people in 195 countries. Never mind your knife-edge group decider; in the first round, the opening match of a World Cup is a brutal drain on the nerves of those involved, heightened by an intense focus and four long years of global anticipation. Just occasionally you get the off-the-scale upset, like when Cameroon put the football of sub-Saharan Africa on the map by chinning the world champions Argentina in 1990. Usually though the tension turns muscles to concrete, with the thought of dropping a clanger in front of a huge chunk of the planet too great to bear. Since 1966 there had been just five goals in nine opening matches. Given the opposition for Scotland, and the hype howling around them like a hurricane, some were expecting a dramatic increase.

At the World Cup, Scotland and Brazil have a significant amount of previous, which has taken place with a metronomic regularity. From 1974 in West Germany up until that opening game in Paris they met in the first round every eight years. Apart from the 0-0 draw in Frankfurt that started the sequence – a game Scotland could easily have won – they had been agonising experiences. In Seville in 1982 the Scots were crucified 4-1 by one of the greatest teams to ever play the international game; substitute Alex McLeish later told the surely embellished after-dinner story that six Scotland players were marking Zico at then end of the match in the hope of acquiring his shirt.

At Italia 90, Brazil served up a different kind of agony. Scotland were just eight minutes from qualifying for the knockout stages for the first time ever, before Jim Leighton coughed up a shot he should have held, and Brazil scrambled in a heart-breaking winner.

Scotland had never beaten Brazil, yet another nation to be caught in the hypnosis of those brilliant yellow shirts. Reflecting on those past encounters, Archie Macpherson has noted something of a gap between perception and reality when it came to this opposition. “To me these Brazilian sides were simply ersatz reminders,” he wrote in Flower of Scotland ahead of the 1998 encounter, “with the possible exception of Seville, of how magical they really used to be, and of how they looked as if they might be slipping towards myth.” If that were true, there was an American sports manufacturer in Oregon heavily invested in keeping the legend going.

Scotland weren’t just playing another country in the opening game, they were also taking on a multinational corporation. In 1996 the Brazilians signed the biggest kit and co-sponsorship deal in football history with Nike for $400 million over a decade, and were immediately sent on the road; in 1997 alone the world champions played a staggering 24 internationals, fulfilling contractual obligations with their funders to compete in exhibition games with certain marquee players freed up to play. In one television advert later parodied by the Scotland squad in the video to Del Amitri’s Don’t Come Home Too Soon, the Brazil squad went through a bewildering array of individual skills in an airport kickabout.

As their drive for world domination over Adidas really kicked in, the top brass at Nike were intent on turning Brazil into the Harlem Globetrotters. Yet beyond the aggressiveness of Nike’s marketing millions, the hype was starting to look real; Brazil won the Copa America and the Confederations Cup in 1997 to sit alongside their world crown. When they rocked up in Paris they were the red-hot favourites to win the World Cup. In terms of opposition plus occasion, it was the biggest game in Scotland’s history.

Against this considerable might, Scotland manager Craig Brown went for experience. His starting 11 in Paris had an average age of just under 31, with Leighton, Tommy Boyd, Colin Calderwood, Colin Hendry, John Collins, Kevin Gallagher, Gordon Durie and Darren Jackson all into their fourth decade. This day, however, had been earned. Scotland had qualified for four of the five tournaments in the 1990s, and the moment was perhaps the most special for one of three Italia ’90 veterans whose club and international career had been in ashes after the last time both nations had met at a World Cup.

“I had to work 10 times harder to be in the Scotland team against Brazil second time around,” Leighton later told The Scotsman. “I was fortunate to win a lot of trophies in the early part of my career when everything went relatively easy for me. That was the way it felt in 1990. So to get to that level again in 1998, after everything I went through at Manchester United and Dundee, made me appreciate it far more.” At 39, such a day could never come for Leighton again; deep down, the other thirtysomethings must have known it too. The loss of 33-year old Gary McAllister to injury ahead of the game was a crushing blow not just for the team but for the player himself.

Time and Brazil wait for no man however, and there is little room for reflection during a World Cup. The opening game attracts such global focus that it inevitably becomes a political opportunity. The Prime Minister Tony Blair swung by Scotland’s chateau ahead of the match for handshakes and spin-doctored bonhomie, while the SNP’s Alex Salmond made sure to keep in close proximity to Sean Connery when the two visited the same Parisian bar on matchday. The Scotland team arrived at the Stade de France decked out in kilts, a wheeze struck upon after Alan McInally had informed Brown that Bayern Munich teams wore traditional Bavarian dress to away games to give their opponents a distraction to think about.

Brazil had also given Scotland food for thought. In the warm-up games ahead of the tournament the Brazilians had lost to the USA, and ahead of the match a video of them shipping four and being turned over by Norway a year earlier had been compulsive viewing for Brown’s squad. “We have looked at it because it shows Brazil letting themselves down,” said Boyd. “We cannot put them on too high a pedestal as we have to compete.”

One useful leveller on the day was the warm-up; due to the lengthy World Cup opening ceremony, both sets of players had to warm-up in the changing rooms and there wasn’t time for any ground staff in Paris to water the pitch. Well before the tournament began, Brown had also explored ways in which to nullify his opponents. He had consulted Bobby Robson, who had managed Brazilian forward Ronaldo at Barcelona, on methods to stop the young prodigy wreaking havoc. As the opening game of the World Cup is day one for any FIFA initiative being premiered at the tournament, Brown had also previously arranged for the former referee Hugh Dallas to give his players a tutorial on the clampdown on tackles from behind to avoid needless yellow and red cards.

Something else premiered for the opening game was digital television. The BBC broadcast the match in digital widescreen format for the first time in a handful of select locations around the UK, an experiment ahead of the launch of News 24, BBC Choice and other services that autumn. In the tunnel before kick-off on a baking Parisian afternoon, the Scottish players had an intimate audience with the Brazilians and tried to get a psychological advantage by arriving in the tunnel before them. Unbeknownst to Brown, when he saw their players holding hands he was witnessing a tradition that went back several years rather than signs of big-match jitters. “I said ‘Look, guys, I’ve just seen them’,” Brown remembers now. “‘They’re shitting themselves’.”

Cesar Sampaio put Brazil in front after four minutes. “It’s in at the near post and the marking was awful!” wailed the BBC’s Barry Davies, as Craig Burley and Collins failed to get airborne against the Brazilian midfielder from a corner. The early stages were a nightmare for Burley, who had been asked to nullify one of Brazil’s major attacking threats. “I’m sure that Burley will cope with Roberto Carlos in defence,” Brown had said of Brazil’s left-back. It was not a view shared by Burley when they were face to face. “I was never quick,” Burley later told FourFourTwo of the experience, “and I kept thinking ‘if this twat kicks it past me, I’m done for’.” That twat did kick it past him, and lost Burley completely before bruising Leighton’s hands with a booming drive.

There was little doubt about where Brazil’s main threat came from. Even though the internet had yet to seep into every device in people’s households, there were not many people unaware of the devastating threat posed by Ronaldo. Whatever Robson had told Brown hadn’t been enough; with every drop of the shoulder, swing of the hips and change of direction he palpably shimmered with menace, a truly awesome sight. In one mesmerising run he utterly flummoxed Boyd and Hendry, leaving them flailing as he snaked in from the touchline before producing a brilliant reflex save from Leighton. Inter had broken the bank to take the World Footballer of the Year to Milan a year earlier, and it was clear why. Right there, before injury propelled him into his lost years, he looked capable of everything.

Yet a barrage never arrived and, totally against the run of play, Scotland equalised in the 38th minute. A long ball into the penalty area was won by Durie, who headed it in the vague direction of Gallacher. After the most minor tangle with Sampaio near the six-yard box Gallacher hit the deck, and the referee awarded the softest of penalties. John Collins drilled it past Taffarel and into the bottom corner, before running off to do the ostentatious, thumbs-pointing-at-name-on-shirt gesture in front of Scotland’s delirious fans in the corner.

The tension never decreased in the second half, but it did seem as if the match would drift into the traditional anti-climactic draw that the opening game so often produces. Long pots from distance were the order of the day – Leonardo and Rivaldo for Brazil, Burley for Scotland. A point would’ve been a great start for Scotland with Norway and Morocco to follow, but as with 1982 and 1990 the Brazilians intervened with devastating effect. In the 74th minute Dunga clipped a pass behind the Scotland defence for Cafu, who was in on goal. Leighton managed to save Cafu’s shot with his face, only for the ball to fly straight into Boyd’s arm and back towards the goal. It bounced agonisingly into the net before Hendry could react.

It was savagely cruel way to concede, and the match was effectively done. Durie and Lambert had a couple of yahoos from range, but they were speculative only. The occasion had drained everyone, Brazil included, and they steadily game-managed the clock down to expiry. Just over four weeks later their players would get to play in the biggest game of all. Brazil blew up in the final and lost 3-0 to a rampant French side, with Ronaldo suffering a convulsive fit before the match and barely able to play. For Scotland, their biggest day had been and gone. “As moments go in my career that day has to be up there at the top,” Brown later reflected. “I’m sure the lads who played against Brazil will feel the same and never forget it.”

After the intensity of that opening fixture, the campaign never picked up again. Burley salvaged a point for Scotland in the following game against Norway to give them a glimmer of a chance of qualifying against Morocco. In between games, he went for the mid-nineties banter hairstyle and bleached his hair blond, just as the Romanians did en masse after they’d beaten England. Burley was then sent off against Morocco with Scotland already two goals behind, a game they went on to lose 3-0. Gallingly enough, Norway appeared to have studied the video of their own performance against Brazil in 1997 as well and beat the world champions again, rendering any result in the Scotland game irrelevant. Once again, it was over in the first round.

The lean years would soon follow the fat. That run of qualifications through the mid-nineties that culminated in the 1998 World Cup gave way to two decades and counting in the wilderness, as one by one the players involved left the international arena. When they look back, the lucky ones involved in that unique game in the Stade de France will always have that blazing afternoon in Paris regardless of what immediately followed. Sometimes in life the day’s always brightest before the dusk.

This article first appeared in Issue 8 which was published in June 2018.

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