Interview: Craig Levein on Scotland’s last win at the World Cup finals

Thirty years ago this week Andy Roxburgh’s side beat Sweden to rekindle their Italia 90 hopes

The last 
Scotland team to win a match at the World Cup finals: 
Back row, Maurice Malpas, Craig Levein, Jim Leighton, Dave McPherson, Alex McLeish. 
Front row, Stuart McCall, Roy Aitken, Gordon Durie, Murdo MacLeod, Mo Johnston, Robert Fleck. Picture: SNS
The last Scotland team to win a match at the World Cup finals: Back row, Maurice Malpas, Craig Levein, Jim Leighton, Dave McPherson, Alex McLeish. Front row, Stuart McCall, Roy Aitken, Gordon Durie, Murdo MacLeod, Mo Johnston, Robert Fleck. Picture: SNS

Five says earlier, an ignominious loss to Costa Rica had invited scorn from the Tartan Army and a critical media. But it served as a kick up the backside and on 16 June 1990, Andy Roxburgh’s Scotland team walked out in Genoa, to play Sweden, with fire in their bellies.

Looking to save face and keep their hopes of progressing from their World Cup group alive, the “arrogance” of the previous match had been supplanted by an intensity that still dominates Craig Levein’s memories of that day, 30 years ago this week.

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“When I think back to that game, the thing I remember is the determination we all had to make up for the result in the first match,” explains the former Scotland defender. “Even before we went out on to the field, the dressing room was hyper. People were banging their heads off doors, thumping their chests, all that sort of stuff. That is what stands out in my mind.”

Craig Levein in action during the 1990 World Cup win over Sweden. Picture: SNS

That primal pre-match display has been recounted over the years, with many involved asserting that the match had been all but won in the tunnel at the Stadio Luigi Ferraris. As the teams lined up for a fixture both needed to win, the visceral roars of the Scots and their crazed looks of determination apparently took the Swedes by surprise. If it unsettled their opponents, it successfully imbued the Scots with the focused passion needed to record the country’s fourth and last victory at a World Cup finals.

“It was so intense. Everybody was shouting and I think that did have an impact on Sweden and, in a different way, on us,” adds the man who eventually went on to manage his country. “But it had been building up since we arrived at the stadium. When we walked out to look at the pitch, we were talking to each other and stressing how important the game was and back in the dressing room that just moved up a notch.”

That tension hadn’t been dispelled by the well-oiled greeting served up to the Hearts man by boisterous family and friends, who had made their way to the stadium early enough to catch his attention during that initial acclimation and, back inside, the volume in the ranks cranked up further.

“Normally, in a dressing room, there will be two or three people who will do most of the shouting and encouraging and cajoling, making sure everyone is up for it and ready, but in that dressing room, I think everyone was at it. The determination, even in training that week had been obvious and before we went out to start the match the focus and determination was enormous.

Tomas Brolin of Sweden is brought down by Scotland's Gordon Durie, with Murdo MacLeod and Maurice Malpas close by. Picture: Simon Bruty/Allsport

“There were a lot of strong characters. Big Alex [McLeish] was there, Maurice Malpas, Roy [Aitken] was like a warrior and Big Slim [Davie McPherson] is quite a quiet but very determined guy and the list goes on. Stuart McCall is a strong character as well; a hardy player. There were a lot of good players and good characters and we were all raring to go. We were up for it and determined to make up for the Costa Rica match.”

Levein, at the end of his first season back after a cruciate injury, had not played in that game due to a tightness in his thigh but, as a member of the squad, he was party to the repercussions.

“I do remember having a meeting or squad get together after the Costa Rica game and there were some strong words spoken and from that came this determination.

“It all came about because of the disappointment of that first group match. I think Andy [Roxburgh] and Craig [Brown, his assistant] underplayed how good they were and there was a little bit of arrogance going into that match, and I think we, as a group, were determined not to make the same mistake against Sweden.

“Everybody, including Andy and Craig, were really keen to make sure that there was no stone left unturned and the feeling leading up to the game was that it was one we needed to win. We were determined to do that.”

A Sweden side full of well-known names, Olle Nordin’s men were given the respect they deserved but against the wounded Scottish lion, only one side would be rampant in that steamy hot Italian evening.

Back in the starting line-up, Levein was surrounded by grit and quality and every man who took to the field had to deal with the self-imposed expectation that they would make amends for the poor start to the competition.

“It was quite a tense game and there was obviously quite a bit to play for. We knew that if we didn’t win that game, because we were playing Brazil in the next match, then the chances of getting through were slim. So the pressure was on. I think that was handled really well by the guys, especially those who started the match. We didn’t lose our focus and it was a really determined display from everybody. Thankfully, that was good enough.”

Stuart McCall pounced in the 11th minute to stab home the opener from close range and although there was no further breakthrough until Mo Johnston slotted home a penalty in the 82nd minute, Levein says he never felt unduly troubled. In fact, Sweden’s 86th-minute goal from Glenn Stromberg provoked irritation rather than fear as the Scots triumphed 2-1. “I felt we won the game quite comfortably,” said Levein. “A lot of the Scotland matches I played in we were under a lot of pressure and you felt it was backs to the wall but that night we had a good side and when they scored late on and I just felt annoyed. For me, that goal tarnished it a little bit because we had been fairly comfortable and for long, long spells in the match they got nothing from us.”

It was one of a few regrets they ultimately packed into their carry-on when they departed Italy. There was the under-estimation of the Costa Rica goalie’s merits, and the missed opportunities to find a way past him, the absence of the clean sheet against Sweden and the decision to push Levein into a fitness test too soon after that win, as the coaching squad assessed his readiness ahead of Scotland’s final, crucial Group C clash with Brazil in Turin.

“I ended up missing the Brazil game. In my first season back from such a long time out, I had picked up a recurring issue with my thigh but, over the last six weeks of the season, I had been managing it. I was resting it at the start of the week and then training Thursday, Friday, playing Saturday.

“I made it worse during the match against Sweden but because of the way I had been managing it, I knew that if I rested it I would be OK but Andy pushed for a fitness test too soon. He wanted to make sure that if he played me I wouldn’t need to come off after 10-15 minutes and I can understand his point of view but I kind of knew that if I had left it alone for another day then I would have been fine.

“It was a huge disappointment for me to be involved in the Sweden game but then not play against Brazil. It was heartbreaking.”

But, when it comes to Scotland and the World Cup there tends to be enough heartache to go around. And despite another passionate and determined display, the match against the South Americans ended in a 1-0 defeat, substitute Muller scoring the winner for Brazil with nine minutes remaining.

“We went into that game with confidence because of the way we performed and the fact we beat Sweden. There were key moments in the Brazil game and had they gone our way, we could have won that.”

But, although they had to wait another 24 hours, nurturing the slim hope that results elsewhere might throw them a lifeline, it wasn’t to be.

“It needed a weird sequence of events and we were all hanging about the hotel waiting but I think we knew it wasn’t particularly hopeful.

“If we had got through it would have been an amazing situation. We were genuinely very close to doing it.”

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