Aidan Smith: When losing to Costa Rica was end of the world

Juan Cayasso chips the ball over Jim Leighton to give Costa Rica a 1-0 victory over the Scots in Genoa. Photograph: SNS
Juan Cayasso chips the ball over Jim Leighton to give Costa Rica a 1-0 victory over the Scots in Genoa. Photograph: SNS
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Well, the ground was nice. The Stadio Luigi Ferraris in the big, muscular port of Genoa had been knocked down and rebuilt for Italia 90
and they must have known the Scots were coming.

In each corner stood a tower resembling a tenement with holes like windows – perfect for a spot of hingin’ oot in the late-afternoon Ligurian sunshine on 11 June. I mean, other places in the world probably have tenements or similar-type housing but didn’t we invent, among many other things, the tradition of nattering to neighbours and putting the world to rights – up, down or across the landing, airing views and at the same time airing various garments?

The garments affixed to the Luigi Ferraris were Lions Rampant and Saltires, of course, but also bedsheets either brought from home or nicked from tourist flop-houses. The DIY banners announced who the Scots were (“The Famous McColly Brothers”), where they were from (“Dumfries”, “Alloa”, “Montrose”) and also their chief preoccupations back in the homeland (“Poll Tax Non-Payers on Tour”, “Hands off Hibs”).

But on that day such cares were forgotten. The Tartan Army played football in the stadium car-park, self-consciously and determinedly, just in case head coach Andy Roxburgh was keeping an open mind on his line-up right up until the very last minute, and then they took their places to watch Scotland’s opening match of our fifth consecutive World Cup. What could possibly go wrong?

Did we expect to beat Costa Rica? Oh, rather. After the Group of Death of Mexico 86, here was our big chance to progress. We were playing the minnows first, like Spain 82 when New Zealand were seen off, only this time we’d be meeting Brazil last, by which time we’d hopefully have bagged two victories and be on our way to the promised land of the second phase.

Were Costa Rica as sprat-like as Iran at Argentina 78? Maybe they were slightly bigger, but we’d cocked up against the Iranians because in the aftershock of Peru, Willie Johnston’s little yellow pills melted under the TV lights, that stray mutt hopped into Ally MacLeod’s dugout and some angry fans in bubble perms yelled harsh words at the players. These sort of distractions weren’t about to repeat, not with Roxburgh in his mortar board set at a severe angle. And where was Costa Rica, anyway?

I mean, the Central Americans were decent, hardly spectacular, with the strange, slow pace of the game suiting them – and they were plainly thrilled to have scored their first-ever World Cup goal and were dogged in protection of it with their keeper playing a blinder. Still, it was, in dear old Arthur Montford’s words, disaster for Scotland. Again.

Italia 90 was my first World Cup on the road and it was strange waking up the next morning and not seeing the newsstands dominated by headlines like “The end of the World”, in a print size usually kept back for wartime, white on black for maximum despair. “The end of the World” was how the Scottish Daily Express greeted the draw with Iran. It was years before I realised the paper was technically speaking about our World Cup hopes having gone kaput, and inviting the populace to think the apocalypse had arrived, if they so wished. I so wished.

I bought Italy’s seven-day sports pink, La Gazzetta dello Sport, and tried to pick my way through their report. It was clear from the amount of exclamation marks on the page that the scoreline had reverberated. There was a map of the Americas locating Costa Rica for those who were still in the dark, the epicentre of this soccershock. And La Gazzetta had also managed to find a Costa Rican celebrity, the soap opera actress Giannina Facio, pictured, to seek her views on the result and judging by the number of exclamation marks in her quotes she was fair chuffed.

The other day I checked Giannina’s Wikipedia page expecting her to still be plying her trade in the soaps, answering the phone in the time-honoured schlocky way (“Si, si, si, si … Mamma mia!”), but she became the wife of the film director Ridley Scott who’s found roles for her in most of his subsequent movies as “Woman with mobile” or “Bank teller”.

Costa Rica weren’t at Italia 90 as mere extras. Although my old chum Mike Aitken, writing in The Scotsman, predicted they wouldn’t win another game after beating us, Los Ticos were to ambush Sweden as well, ruining my plans to take the train down to Bari for our brave boys’ emergence from the gloamin’, out of the groups at last.

Were we over-confident? I think we were. We’d got used to being at the finals. We were loyal co-op 
customers seeking the divvy of further progress in the tournament. The ’90 team didn’t have a Billy Bremner or a Graeme Souness or a Kenny Dalglish, the only guys we’d sent to World Cups who could be termed world class. No matter. It was only Costa Rica.

From my vantage point down low at the far end of the stadium, I thought their winner, scored by Juan Cayasso, had been scrappy. In fact it was set up with a brilliant back-heel which would have been beyond the ken of most of the guys in the change white tops and certainly Rambo McInally. The next day’s headline in Costa Rica’s La Nacion was “Fue grandioso!” – “It was great!”

We can be magnanimous in defeat now. Twenty years after the event, in an interview with Cayasso which you might want to file in the “Why are you so great?” drawer, the journalist began: “I do not know if it happens to you, but every time I see his goal against Scotland, my soul shudders … ” It obviously brought great joy, and fair play to Costa Rica which, by the way, National Geographic call the happiest country in the world.

Inhabiting, as I do, a country which somehow missed out on that honour, I got over the defeat and, tarting myself around, followed Colombia and then Cameroon, enjoying the rest of Italia 90 entirely angst-free. Costa Rica wasn’t the end of the world. It might have been the beginning of the end of us qualifying for World Cups but hopefully Friday’s friendly with Cayasso’s successors can be the start of the journey back.