It was the aftermath of the dead rubber World Cup group clash between tournament favourites Spain and an Australia side managed by Ange Postecoglou.
Remarkably, the reigning World Cup champions had been knocked out after the second match as they sought to defend the trophy. Australia, meanwhile, had been eliminated following an absorbing 3-2 loss to the Netherlands in the previous game.
Excitement wasn't necessarily why this five-goal thriller caused a stir in Scotland. A major reason was a "5-1" hand gesture made by Ryan McGowan in the second half of the Group B clash.
The significance passed over the heads of most of those watching around the world. Even Postecoglou, some way away from being acquainted with the finer details of Scottish football, would have been none the wiser, which was just as well for McGowan. His manager might not have been amused to learn that, in the midst of such a high profile fixture on the greatest stage in world football, his full-back’s mind had wandered to another match which had taken place more than two years earlier in Glasgow.
Not just any match admittedly. It was one billed as the match of the millennium. It was Heart of Midlothian v Hibernian in the Scottish Cup final, the first time the two Edinburgh clubs had met at this stage of the competition since 1896. Although the hullabaloo was considerable in the countdown to kick-off, the hype was exceeded by the fall out after Hibs were thrashed 5-1 by their fiercest rivals.
It’s why I was lingering in what’s called a mixed zone – where journalists are permitted to speak to selected players – at the Arena de Baixada as I waited to quiz McGowan on the issue of the day.
“So that 5-1 gesture, was it really aimed at Hibs fans, Ryan?” I wondered. He admitted it hadn’t been his priority but when his ‘keeper was asking for six players in the wall, and aware because of the huge screens at either end of the ground that he was on camera, it seemed he took the opportunity to have some more fun at Hibs fans’ expense. He flicked up all five fingers of one hand, and one on the other, as if to confirm: ‘just the six players is it?’
Those in the know suspected he was at it. As McGowan explains to author Anthony Bown in a new book, Triumph and Tragedy of 19-05-12, his phone was fried by the time he got back to the dressing-room in Brazil at the end of the game.
Brown secured a more detailed interview with McGowan, who is now playing in Kuwait, and yes, still fielding questions about this gesture. “People still talk about it to this day, which is pretty cool,” he says.
In retrospect, I cringe slightly at the memory of being sent to report on the greatest show on earth and sidling up to McGowan to ask something so left-field. He wasn’t even a Hearts player any longer. Still, the episode does illustrate how the ripples from the game continued to be felt long afterwards.
For Hearts fans, 19 May 2012 is the gift that keeps on giving. Even now, it’s very likely you’ll hear “You lucky bastards, it should have been ten!” chorused in the middle of a derby in recognition that the fourth goal was scored - by McGowan, indeed - just five minutes into the second half.
The unexpected scoreline holds its charge to this day. When I say unexpected, I did look back and consult The Scotsman’s sports writers’ predictions on the morning of the game. I was the only one of seven to predict a Hibs victory.
Fortunately, Brown has overlooked this. He fails to uncover little else in a forensic re-telling of a success he even proposes could be Hearts’ “outstanding result of all time”. Considering what was going on behind the scenes at the time, he could be right.
Brown is certainly well placed to have an opinion. His first book, Reminiscing with Legends, covered Hearts’ 1998 Scottish Cup win over Rangers. Tragically, neither that team nor the starting XI from 2012 can reunite in full again.
Midfielder Stefano Salvatori died at the age of just 49 after a battle with cancer a year before the 20th anniversary of the 2-1 win at Celtic Park. The first major anniversary of the 2012 win –the tenth anniversary has just passed – was marked without a central figure in the triumph.
Footage of Marius Zaliukas lifting the trophy has been doing the rounds this week on Twitter. The skipper, who looks such a vivid presence with his strong jawline and athletic frame, passed away from motor neurone disease at the age of only 36 in 2020.
Brown contacts Zaliukas’ sister Laura in a standout chapter towards the end of the book. We learn that the skipper was already concerned about a loss of feeling in his fingers at Hearts, which adds considerable poignancy to the image of Zaliukas clutching the Scottish Cup tightly in one hand on the cover of the book. It’s a tragic coda to a tale of tales brilliantly recounted by Brown, now a reporter with the Press Association.
Few Hearts fans will need reminding of the details, but Brown excels in providing the background, including an illuminating interview with Paulo Sergio, the popular, guitar-playing manager who led the club to glory. The then manager deserved a medal simply for putting up with owner Vladimir Romanov, even if the owner was losing interest at the time amid eye-watering debts that put the club’s very existence in doubt just 12 months later.
The fans’-led recovery has long been underway. Sergio has returned for this weekend's Scottish Cup final against Rangers. It’s guaranteed that Brown, too, will be watching closely at Hampden, notepad in hand.
He might well have himself another book commission come 4.45pm.
Triumph and Tragedy of 19-05-12: Hearts' ultimate Edinburgh derby win by Anthony Brown - £22. Available from the Hearts club shop at Tynecastle or https://legends98.bigcartel.com/product/triumph-and-tragedy-of-19-05-12