Craig Levein relives dream debut when Scotland became ‘world champions’

And they say Craig Levein never won anything. Thirty years ago today, on his longed-for international debut, he helped Scotland become world champions.

Scotland right-back Stuart McKimmie (third from left) watches his half volley fly past Argentina keeper Nery Pumpido for the only goal of the game at Hampden in March 1990. Picture: SNS

Okay, so it was an unofficial, self-awarded title. But then Scotland were quick enough to anoint themselves unofficial world champions in 1967 after overcoming England at Wembley. The same surely applied to beating Argentina at Hampden on 28 March 1990. Admittedly, there were some caveats. It was almost four years since the Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina had become world champions in Mexico. The mantle had begun to weigh very heavily on their shoulders.

Scotland were not the first side to beat them since then. Indeed, prior to the Hampden visit for a pre-Italia ’90 friendly, they had scored just one goal in their last eight games. It’s fair to say this was not a classic incarnation of La Albiceleste. But then again, they were still the World Cup holders. In just over nine weeks’ time, they would reach the final again.

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Argentina’s four-year reign all but took in Levein’s period on the sidelines after the devastation of successive serious knee injuries. In the summer of ’86, when Argentina beat West Germany 3-2, Levein, pictured inset, was still recovering emotionally from Hearts losing the league on the final day and then Scottish Cup final seven days later. The physical damage after he sustained torn ligaments in October of the following season during a reserve match at Easter Road took a lot longer to heal. “Really,” he says now from his home in Fife as he continues to wind down his involvement at Hearts, “it was not until late 1989 that I got playing regularly again”.

The Scotland team lines up before the match: (L-R) Alex McLeish, Jim Leighton, Paul McStay, Alan McInally, Stuart McCall, Jim Bett, Craig Levein, Stuart McKimmie, Murdo MacLeod, Richard Gough, Robert Fleck. Picture: SNS

The friendly against Argentina should never have been his first cap. Indeed, he featured in a squad three years previously, when Alex Ferguson named him in his party for the trip to face Israel in a pre-Mexico ’86 friendly. He was not involved in the game, nor did he make it into the World Cup squad. Injuries then put his entire career in jeopardy.

“I took a gamble and tried to get this quick fix using man-made fibre,” he recalls. “It was the latest on the market cruciate replacement.

“It snapped and I had to go through the whole thing again. I remember Andy Roxburgh – who had by then been appointed Scotland manager – coming to see me after my second operation. He brought a Scotland 
jersey. I don’t know if he thought ‘here’s a jersey, because I don’t think you are ever going to get one’.

“But it was really kind of him. So, I had that in my head. If I could get myself fit, and Andy was still manager, there was a chance I might still get an opportunity. It was the icing on the cake to be involved v Argentina. And to win it as well. There were also rumours that Maradona was going to be involved…”

Argentina's Claudio Caniggia ahead of making his first appearance on Scottish soil. Picture: SNS

Maradona didn’t travel to Hampden, where he had scored his first goal for Argentina in a 3-1 win 11 years 
earlier – he had some personal promotional business to attend to in the Far East. But a certain Claudio Caniggia made his first appearance on 
Scottish soil.

Levein was given the task of dealing with the lightning-fast striker, who was set to become such a star at the finals in Italy. An elegant centre-half, Levein did not employ the brutal Cameroon approach exhibited a few weeks later in Milan, which saw Caniggia knocked for six in a flurry of boots and flaxen hair. Instead, he fought fire with fire – or speed with speed. As The Scotsman recounted: “It took Levein’s exceptional pace to crowd out Caniggia when the 
striker sped forward on another 
blistering run.”

It was further evidence that Levein had returned to something like his best. “I remember Caniggia, of course,” he says. “He is quite distinctive with the hair and the wee head band, or is it a bit of string? And he was really quick. We were under a bit of pressure in the match and he was continually running in behind. I remember thinking at the end how tired mentally I was – I was completely exhausted. I always felt that was the difference between domestic matches and international matches, the concentration required was so much greater.

“We were playing against cleverer players, stronger players, quicker players… and you know, when you are just coming back from injury, it was by far the hardest match I had played in.”

Levein took his place in a three-man defence alongside Richard Gough and Alex McLeish. Robert Fleck and Alan McInally were up front but Scotland’s winner in a 1-0 victory came from an unlikely source. Stewart McKimmie half-volleyed home after 32 minutes. It was the full-back’s first goal for his country – and his first for anyone since scoring for Aberdeen against Clydebank almost five years earlier.

The 51, 537 crowd lapped it up. The Scotland rugby team had beaten England to win the Grand Slam just 11 days earlier. Flower of Scotland was audible for the first time at Hampden.

After waiting so long for his first cap, Levein won five more in the next three months. He finally made his competitive bow at the World Cup finals of all places on a memorable night in Genoa as Scotland re-ignited their hopes of reaching the knockout stage for the first time with a 2-1 win over Sweden.

Levein was pushed into the side as a replacement for Gough, who was injured in the catastrophic opening defeat by Costa Rica, and was set to keep his place for the final group game with Brazil in Turin. Heartbreakingly, injury intervened once more. Not anything serious on this occasion, which made it harder to accept.

“As a result of coming back from my injuries, I was carrying for most of the season, certainly the latter part, a tightness right at the top of my thigh,” he explains. “It bothered me for the last three months of the season. Effectively what I was doing was trying to get to the summer fit. I would play and then take a few days off and do gym stuff and suchlike and then only start training again towards the end of the week.

“Andy was quite undecided whether to wait and see if I was going to be OK or to give me a fitness test,” he continues. “He ended up giving me a fitness test the day before the Brazil game which consisted of me smashing the ball as many times as I could as hard as I could just to prove that my thigh was all right.

“I felt it, it just did not feel right. I had to say to him: ‘Look, it just doesn’t feel right – I don’t think I will be able to see out the match’.”

Levein knows he owes a lot to Roxburgh, who handed him 12 of his 16 caps and named him skipper for a friendly v Germany at Ibrox. But he can’t deny being slightly annoyed. He knew how to manage the injury and another 24 hours would likely have made all the difference. But having been a manager – including a stint as Scotland manager no less – he also realised that Roxburgh needed to be sure on the eve of such a hugely significant game. Scotland’s hopes hinged on avoiding defeat. “I said to him look if you just give me another day, I will be all right,” says Levein. “I understand his position completely. He could not have gone into the game with not enough preparation. I was a little bit annoyed. I thought I could have played if I had not done the fitness test. But who knows? It was a difficult decision for him.”

Who knows indeed? Had Levein played he might have been there to clear the danger after Jim Leighton spilled a shot from Alemao. Gary Gillespie, his replacement, collided with Careca in the race for the loose ball, which squelched out towards the far post on a wet night in northern Italy. Muller tapped it into the net before McLeish was able to react.

It was a maddeningly avoidable goal. Levein couldn’t bring himself to watch a single minute of the tournament thereafter. It meant he missed Brazil being knocked out in the last 16 by Argentina of all teams – and after a goal 
from Caniggia of all people.

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