When Scotland lost to Costa Rica ‘it was a national disaster’

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When I meet Alex McLeish in search of a Scottish perspective, he delves into YouTube, fingers dancing across his mobile phone as he summons (Juan) Cayasso’s 49th-minute strike. “Actually, a good f**king goal,” he declares. “There’s the back-heel, he’s on his tod, and Jim Leighton has nae chance.”

We are in a pub on Wandsworth Common near his home in south London. McLeish, appointed Scotland manager for a second time in February 2018, allows his critical faculties to kick in as he takes a second look.

Alex McLeish recalls an air of apprehension in the Scotland dressing room ahead of the defeat by Costa Rica. Picture: SNS

Alex McLeish recalls an air of apprehension in the Scotland dressing room ahead of the defeat by Costa Rica. Picture: SNS

“Somebody allows this guy to come inside here,” he complains. “He shouldn’t be letting him come inside. Force him out there. It’s too easy. Stewart McKimmie got dragged in. I’ve been done as well there. A little bit of good movement from Cayasso – he was a good player, and he drifted off me as I watched the ball. I used to always analyse goals I lost. I would tape 
Sportscene every week.”

McLeish, a defender in the great Aberdeen team of the 1980s, remembers a fatal air of apprehension in the dressing room. “It was that old Scottish chip-on- your-shoulder thing: What if we don’t win this? We were thinking the negatives. That was the way we played the game.

“I played against Brazil, against Careca and Romário, and we never gave them a kick. With Cayasso, I can only explain it was a little bit of hesitancy. It was the unknown, plus the expectation level again weighing on your shoulders. When you think of the crosses and the shots we had, there was no conviction, not the way a player at his best would deliver.

“We didn’t have the guile to penetrate them, and they were very well organised by a great coach. I met him (Bora Milutinović) in Doha a couple of years ago, and he said there was a lot of noise coming from Scotland – it was more our press saying what we were going to do to them; it wasn’t the players. When we lost, it was a national disaster.”

The Scotsman described it as “not the worst display but the poorest result” for Scotland on the world stage. On reflection, there are other strong candidates. The 7-0 hammering by Uruguay in their debut campaign in 1954. The 3-1 loss to Peru and 1-1 draw with Iran which followed the folly of manager Ally McLeod’s hubristic claim before the Argentina World Cup that “You can mark down 25 June 1978 as the day Scottish football conquers the world”. Or the 3-0 humbling by Morocco at France ’98, their last appearance to date on the global stage.

Defeat by Costa Rica was the cue for another hard-luck story for a nation which has never survived the group stage of the competition. In their second game, they overcame Sweden 2-1 on the day of a warmly remembered fan march to the Stadio Luigi Ferraris: Scots and Swedes together in a friendly conga of kilts and Viking helmets.

In the third, they held out hope of a point against Brazil, which would have secured qualification, before losing a soft goal to Müller with eight minutes remaining.

The Tartan Army could only dream of such a near miss today. In 1990, the health of the Scottish club game was such that Rangers, with four players, were the best-represented team in England’s World Cup squad. Yet, if Italia ’90 was a springboard for Costa Rica, Scotland have not won a World Cup finals game since. Indeed, with their absence from Russia 2018, they have missed five tournaments running.

It is a painful stat for a proud Scotsman like Andy Roxburgh. On the wall of the office at his home in Switzerland, he has a Daily Record cartoon featuring himself on a gondola; on the side of the vessel is the newspaper’s masthead and the message “Five in a row”. “I wish you hadn’t told me that,” he says when Scotland’s modern five-in-a-row World Cup sequence is mentioned.

“Look back and think of the top international players Scotland had,” he laments. “We still had some very good players, but we didn’t have the Kenny Dalglishes, Graeme Sounesses and Joe Jordans of this world. Since then it’s gradually slid away from that level. The question is, ‘Why is that?’ I’d put it down to one word, and that’s environment. I think the environment that was Scottish football changed and that means all the way from the streets to the youth teams to the schoolboy football. That diminished.”

Now technical director of the Asian Football Confederation, Roxburgh suggests different reasons for this diminishment: the weakening of the Scottish club game in correlation with the Premier League’s power surge, and the accompanying narrowing of opportunities for Scottish players south of the border.

“Whether it’s the development of the Champions League and Premier League, whether it’s the change in the school football set-up, there are all sorts of reasons. You don’t see the level of player now that they had there.

“With the Premier League in Scotland, you know the problems connected with that and the demise of Rangers. I saw a Scotland squad for a recent match, and there was not one of them from Glasgow Rangers. That tells you how the environment changed.

“It’s not to be negative. Scottish football is doing its best to survive in the current climate, and the climate is difficult because of globalisation, because of the centralisation of money. Where I’m working now, people are up in the middle of the night watching games from England. It’s taken over the world. There’s another significant thing you forget about Scotland. You look at Germany and France, and immigration had a lot to do with what has happened there – think of the influence of Turkish immigration in Germany player-wise. Scotland was never part of that – it’s never ever benefited from that through its history because it was never a place that was part of such immigration. It’s another element in the equation.”

Graeme Souness, one of Scotland’s great players of the 1980s, touched on this same element in an interview with the Sunday Times in 2017 – “Think of what it’s done for the football prowess of the Dutch, the French, the English” – and in this, there is a case for a more sympathetic reading of the comment by now departed national coach Gordon Strachan, made after their Russia 2018 qualifying 
failure and mocked at the time, 
that “genetically, we are 
behind”.

This is an extract from World In Motion: The Inside Story of Italia ’90 by Simon Hart, published by deCoubertin Books. Available from all good book stores and at deCoubertin.co.uk for £16.99.