It is a tale that never grows tired...even as the whiskers on it lengthen to hipster proportions. It simply never felt as cool, as captivating or – frankly – as crackers to be a Scotland supporter as it did 20 years ago this week: 10 June 1998, to be precise.
That afternoon, with a billion people in more than 200 countries tuning in to watching our small football nation take on those most beloved aesthetes of the game, Brazil, in the opening game of the France ’98 World Cup, Scotland had both a global pulling power and a grip on its own people that seems certain never to be replicated.
Of course it proved a hard luck tale. Yet for all we wallow in this as a national characteristic, in reality it is the fate of so many underdogs. As was true of Craig Brown’s men with John Collins’ penalty equaliser that preceded a late Tom Boyd own goal, they often produce a bark ahead of being administered with a fatal bite.
Of course, the occasion in the Stade de France can appear cleaved into the consciousness like few other moments in life, never mind football, for those within these borders because Scotland haven’t appeared in a major finals since.
But what gives the afternoon its special seasoning is the sprinkling of the absurd in so many of the stories that endure from it. Truly, it is what puts a kilt on the memories. Indeed, the wearing of full national dress by the players as they entered the stadium set the tone for their unique finals fling.
Boyd has subsequently recalled how sweaty and scratchy the experience was for the Scotland squad, and not the best preparation. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but… is his general take. Then national manager Brown remembers it differently with the inspiration for the get-up, as he recalled yesterday, a lecture he had attended by Bayern Munich youth coach Bernard Kern.
“He said that their players had turned up for a few games in lederhosen and the Munich supporters had loved it,” said Brown. “I mentioned it to the lads and through their player pool agent, Paul Stretford, they got sponsored by a kit manufacturer and made some money for their player pool. I’ll tell you, I’d do it again any time because it didn’t only bring a great response from the Tartan Army but the Brazilian fans too.”
Brown was beloved by his players for how he punctured the tension in the moments before they were to take to the pitch with a priceless quip that was owed to his knowledge of the Brazilian players taking to the pitch hand in hand – the origins of which was a talk he had attended by the country’s 1994 World Cup winning manager Carlos Alberto Parreira.
In describing how he had to instil a unity and discipline to end the country’s wait for a first World Cup finals win since 1970, the coach talked of how he had noticed captain Dunga seeking to get every player on side by holding their hand in the dressing room ahead of a return match with a Bolivian side they had lost to at altitude for USA ’94. Parreira asked him to extend this sense of camaraderie by having the team enter the pitch bonded together in such fashion.
“I knew this but the boys weren’t aware of it so when I came back into the dressing room after watching Brazil go out – I always had us making the other team wait because I had learned it from Alex Ferguson – I said to them, “lads, they’re shitting themselves to play you, they’re holding hands!”
If Brown could turn back the clock, one thing to which he would dearly have loved to bring a different outcome was the fourth minute Bebeto corner from which César Sampaio dashed to the front post and directed the ball towards goal off his shoulder. “I think in my eight years in charge that was the only goal we conceded from a corner,” Brown said. “We had qualified well with only three goals conceded in ten games and we just didn’t give away goals from set-pieces.”
Scotland recovered from that body blow and, ranged against a side containing stellar performers Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos and Cafu, were given a lifeline when Sampaio clumsily collided with Kevin Gallacher to fell him in the box. What happened next Collins has described as pre-ordained.
“I knew I was on the penalties, that was my role in the team,” he has said. “The night before I’d dreamt about it, I’d visualised me taking the penalty and I’d picked my spot [then]. So when Kevin Gallacher went down and the referee pointed to the spot my immediate thought was ‘what an opportunity to get us back in the game’.
“The key to taking penalties is to pick your spot early, don’t change your mind, keep your eye on the ball and strike it cleanly. I chose the keeper’s bottom right and struck it fairly well. The keeper dived the right way but as soon as it left my left foot I knew he wasn’t going to get down to it.
“Then I ran away to celebrate with the Tartan Army [in the corner], where my dad was, my brother was, running away there ecstatic, my team-mates chasing me, shouting – the greatest feeling in the world.” Scotland were rendered nearly men in the cruellest fashion imaginable when 17 minutes from time Dunga picked out Cafu haring into the box from the right. His attempt to flick beyond the advancing Jim Leighton resulted in the keeper bravely blocking his effort only for it to ricochet off Boyd and in. It is a moment that the Celtic man is rarely allowed to forget but which he has said won’t define for him (the experience) of either that day, or France 98 – wherein a subsequent 1-1 draw with Norway and 3-0 defeat by Morocco ensured an earliest possible exit from an eighth straight World Cup for Scotland.
“Of course it was devastating at the time,” said Boyd in an interview some years later. “And I get reminded of it from time to time when anniversaries of the game come up but I’ve never really been too hard on myself about it because there was nothing I could have done to avoid it.
“If I had been short with a passback or something I could blame myself but what happened was just bad luck, plain and simple. Jim made a good save from Cafu and I was just too close to the pair of them to get out of the way of the ball.
“It hit my shoulder but you know if it had hit my chest or any other soft part of my body, I’m sure the ball would have been cleared.
“But that day in Paris is right up there with anything I experienced in football. To play in the opening game of the World Cup would have been special against anybody but to face Brazil, with the billions of people watching, was a once-in-a-lifetime moment.”
A fittingly bizarre footnote is the once-in-a-lifetime proposition that came the way of on-field, front-toothless Craig Burley from one viewer among the global watching audience.
“I was sharing a room with Paul Lambert and the phone went,” the midfielder recalled some time ago. “He said it was a dentist from Munich looking for me. I’m on Scotland duty in France thinking how could a dentist from Munich have our number?
“But I went on the phone and the guy said, ‘I saw the game and noticed you obviously need a bit of work done. I can’t help you out in terms of your looks but I’m offering you a free trip to Munich. I have a big dental clinic there. I’ll do your teeth for free and we’ll get publicity. I never took up the offer but being a Scot maybe I should have taken up the freebie.”
A quip that may be considered off-kilter.