25 years on from Genoa triumph, we are still waiting for our next World Cup finals win
It might hardly seem cause to look out the party hats and streamers. Tuesday, though, brings up a significant anniversary in the history of Scotland’s national football team. For on that day, a quarter of century will have passed since the country last won a game at a World Cup finals.
If it depresses that the last victory – of a mere four, it must be said – Scotland have claimed on the most exalted football stage is now so distant, the circumstances that surrounded the 2-1 success over Sweden in Genoa’s Luigi Ferrari Stadium at Italia 90 are both uplifting, and infuriating. Murdo MacLeod, a key figure in a win achieved through sheer force of will, puts it more succinctly. “It was typical Scotland,” he says.
The comment is offered up because of what occurred in the same stadium five days before Sweden were slain. Then Andy Roxburgh’s side had trooped off the same pitch to chant of “what a load of rubbish” from the 9,000-strong Scotland support – 6,000 more had been locked outside because of shambolic ticketing arrangements – after a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of World Cup debutants, and supposed Group C whipping boys, Costa Rica. A result that caused Ally MacLeod-style levels of public and media opprobrium to be heaped on Roxburgh and his players.
What followed was the Scotland way. “After letting everyone down when we were fully expected to win we then turned it on when least expected,” says Dave McPherson, pictured below, one of Scotland’s foremost performers at Italia 90. “That night against Sweden we went for it and Sweden didn’t think we could sustain our pressurising of them. But we did.”
Roxburgh reacted to his team’s lacklustre efforts against Costa Rica in failing to find a response to a Juan Cayasso breakaway goal scored just after half-time by swapping artistry for artisanship. The Scotland coach, who said the national camp was “bleeding emotionally” from the Costa Rica calamity, correctly identified that in a must-not-lose second game for both sides – Sweden had lost their opener to Brazil – a British-style cup-tie rumbustiousness would take a hold, with so many players across the two teams UK-based.
‘We let everyone down when expected to win and turned it on when least expected’
Out went Paul McStay and Jim Bett to allow MacLeod, pictured right, to beef up a midfield he featured in alongside Stuart McCall and Roy Aitken, while the need for runners up front meant Robert Fleck was preferred to the in-form Ally McCoist as an industrious twin for Mo Johnston. It would prove to be one of only four caps for the selfless Norwich City forward. “I still rib Ally about that,” says McPherson, then with Hearts but later a team-mate of the striker at Ibrox.
With injury having forced Richard Gough out of the tournament, McPherson was forced to switch to right-back to accommodate Craig Levein in central defence. From there he produced a passing accuracy level that a Liverpool Polytechnic scientific study stated was only rivalled in the Scotland set-up by the goalscorers against Sweden, McCall and Johnston.
“I was telling someone about that just the other day,” said McPherson. “I always prided myself on my passing and ball retention, but it was never my preference to play at full-back. To have the career highpoint of featuring in a World Cup finals, though, you would play anywhere.”
Roxburgh, for all his proactive team reshaping, hardly cut a confident figure as he sought to absorb the abuse for the opening game humiliation. “If anyone feels we’ve let them down, it is not on the basis of promises we haven’t kept,” he said. “We’ve always said we did well to qualify in difficult circumstances [they knocked out France] and now we’ve come to the finals we have said we have problems in the group but we are prepared to fight our way through them.”
Swedish coach Olle Nordin was pretty dismissive of them doing so against his side. He was convinced his team would “make life hell for Scotland”, and so was the game’s cognoscenti. “No one was saying Sweden were possible winners but they were considered a dark horse to make an impression in Italy,” MacLeod remembers.
Little wonder, with the collection of top level performers they could call upon. Glenn Hysen was fresh from winning the league with Liverpool. Anders Limpar would claim that honour with Arsenal within 12 months. Jonas Thern had a month earlier been in the Benfica team that lost out in the final of the European Cup. And every European scout was compiling reports on 20-year-old wunderkind Tomas Brolin, who had hit five goals in only three internationals, despite having only made the senior breakthrough that April. In a deafening atmosphere – “it was a firecracker of an evening” recalls McPherson – Scotland’s display screamed out desire and desperation. “It was do-or-die for both teams, but we were determined to do. We wanted to go at them from the off and get an early goal, and we had the hard-working players to do that. It was one of those nights when everything clicked.”
The opener was delivered thanks to a tenth minute MacLeod corner that McPherson’s head put into the mix, where McCall pounced from close in.
“We were comfortable throughout and really battled,” MacLeod said. The win was assured when Aitken was fouled by Joachim Nilsson in the area and Johnston converted from the spot. Nerves were jangling, when substitute Glenn Stromberg pulled a goal back four minutes from time, but Scotland stood firm.
The stoicism against a pedigree opponent – and scrapping, with Scotland committing 24 fouls to Sweden’s 12 – made that June 1990 Saturday night in Genoa the greatest evening in the World Cup history of the country, according to Scotsman correspondent Mike Aitken. The defeat of Holland in 1978 courtesy of that glorious Archie Gemmill goal might figure higher in the lore of our game but, as Aitken pointed out, the Dutch gave the impression in Cordoba of being content to lose, the result assuring them an easier passage to the latter stages.
“After Zaire in 1974, Holland in 1978 and New Zealand in 1982 there is no doubt this was Scotland’s finest World Cup victory in six visits and 36 years of trying to reach the latter stages of the competition,” Aitken argued.
Of course, with crushing inevitability, there had to be a bitter postscript. A magnanimous Nordin stated that if Scotland played as they did against his side in the final group outing they would give Brazil “a helluva fright”. This they did in a rain-soaked Turin, only for a cheap goal conceded late on to send them heading homeward.
Not, though, before McPherson fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition. After the game, Roxburgh introduced the defender to none other than Pele. “I thought about saying ‘nice to meet you, Edson Arantes do Nascimento’. In the end though, I just called him Pele.” McPherson just wishes the world’s most revered footballer had a copy of Liverpool Polytechnic’s analysis to hand right then. “Then he could have said ‘you’re pretty consistent, big man’. And I could have replied ‘you’re no so bad yirsel, Pele’.”
16 June 1990, Stadio Luigi Ferraris, Genoa. Attendance: 31,823
SWEDEN 1 (Strömberg 86) - SCOTLAND 2 (McCall 10, Johnston pen 80)
How they lined up in Genoa
GK Thomas Ravelli (IFK Gothenburg)
DF Glenn Hysen (c) (Liverpool)
DF Peter Larsson (Ajax)
DF Roland Nilsson (Sheffield Wed)
DF Stefan Schwarz (Malmö)
MD Klas Ingesson (IFK Gothenburg)
MD Anders Limpar (Cremonese)
MD Joakim Nilsson (Malmö)
MD Jonas Thern (Benfica)
FW Tomas Brolin (IFK Norrköping)
FW Stefan Pettersson (Ajax)
MD Glenn Strömberg (Bergamo) 76 mins for Larsson
FW Johnny Ekström (Cannes) 62 mins for Pettersson
Manager: Olle Nordin
GK Jim Leighton (Manchester United)
DF David McPherson (Hearts)
DF Alex McLeish (Aberdeen)
DF Craig Levein (Hearts)
DF Maurice Malpas (Dundee United)
MD Roy Aitken (c) (Newcastle United)
MD Murdo McLeod (Borussia Dortmund)
MD Stuart McCall (Everton)
FW Maurice Johnston (Rangers)
FW Gordon Durie (Chelsea)
FW Robert Fleck (Norwich City)
MD Paul McStay (Celtic) 76 mins for Durie
FW Ally McCoist (Rangers) 85 mins for Fleck
Manager: Andy Roxburgh