AS A footballing nation, Argentina are touched by angels and demons. Twice winners of the World Cup, the South Americans have won friends around the world for the skills of players of the calibre of Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Gabriel Batistuta, Osvaldo Ardiles and Juan Riquelme as well as intimidating opponents, in other eras, with dirty tricks and streetfighter tactics.
It was this sportswriter's good fortune over the past 32 years to report on all three of Scotland's previous meetings with Argentina and witness first hand the blend of sublime artistry, underhand chicanery and steely ruthlessness which distinguishes the play of a country that has produced more than its fair share of gifted individuals.
The birth of Argentina as a global force in international football can be traced back to the World Cup of 1978 when Cesar Luis Menotti, a chain-smoking former journalist, was placed in charge of the team and the Argentine government provided funding to turn the young men who learned the game on the streets into a cohesive force. No coach was ever given more time, or resources, to develop the national team than Menotti.
In 1977, however, when Scotland made a pit stop in Buenos Aires as part of a summer tour of South America, the rough edges which would all but disappear the following year, were still very much in evidence.
ARGENTINA 1 SCOTLAND 1
Buenos Aires, June 1977
IF THE World Cup had been held in 1977 rather than a year later, who knows what Scotland might have achieved. It was our misfortune that Ally MacLeod's men should reach a peak 12 months before it mattered most. Before it all turned to dust, however, the Scots arrived in Buenos Aires fresh from a 4-2 success in Chile. The victory extended a run of confidence building performances which had seen them lose just once in 16 games.
The party was in upbeat mood before someone asked why the plane from Santiago flying the team over the Andes was the colour of a rainbow. In broken English, a member of the airline's ground staff explained the paint job. The aircraft was easier to spot from the air if it crashed in mountainous terrain.
The relationship between footballers and journalists was far closer in those days. On arrival in Argentina, it didn't seem out of the ordinary when the press were ushered into a new vehicle while the officials took their seats in a rickety old bus. It transpired the military government were anxious no bad publicity should fall on Argentina in the build-up to the finals. Since local police were concerned about a bazooka attack on the official party, the sportswriters were used as a decoy.
The match itself, in the cauldron of the Boca Juniors stadium, was notable for both the ferocity of the atmosphere and the tackling. While Scotland's reputation went before them – the team was cheered onto the pitch and the national anthem, which was jeered when England played the week before, also received applause – the temperature on the field was overheated.
Menotti's men had still to learn how to achieve success without menace. In a match where both sides were awarded penalties by the Brazilian referee, Argentina committed 41 fouls to Scotland's 14. Vicente Pernia was one of the old school who spat in Willie Johnston's face, pulled his jersey and dug his elbow into the winger's kidneys off the ball.
Perhaps the little Scottish winger was deemed as much to blame as his assailant and both players were ordered off. Similarly, in a tit-for-tat refereeing display, after awarding Scotland a penalty when Daniel Killer floored Kenny Dalglish – Don Masson scored from the spot – the Brazilian official penalised Tom Forsyth for a challenge on Oscar Trossero. Daniel Passarella duly equalised.
At the post-match press conference, Menotti avoided all questions about his side's mean streak and the Scottish press made their protest by walking out, against the counsel of Hugh McIlvanney, who thought the gesture futile. Later, the then president of the Argentine FA, Dr Alfredo Cantilo, apologised to the SFA. He said he was ashamed of the performance and promised to speak to the manager.
Whatever Cantilo said to Menotti worked well enough. A year later, Argentina cleaned up their act and became world champions. Scotland, on the other hand, lost their way.
SCOTLAND 1 ARGENTINA 3
Glasgow, June 1979
TWO years later and Argentina continued to go from strength to strength. In addition to the side which won the World Cup in 1978, Menotti also had personnel at his disposal from the group of youngsters who won the Junior World Cup in Tokyo that year. Most notable among these young lions was the short, stocky figure of Diego Maradona.
The teenager's reputation went before him and a crowd of 62,000 hailed a performance of pure football which was all but unrecognisable from the roughhouse tactics used against Scotland two years earlier.
Whether or not it was because of Scotland's own affinity for producing small men of stature in the game – Alex Jackson, the tallest of the Wembley Wizards was 5ft 7ins – but the Hampden crowd gladly embraced the mighty atom. He ran the length of the pitch before setting up Leopold Luque for the opening goal. The centre-forward added a second before Maradona scored his first goal for Argentina.
By this time, George Wood had replaced Alan Rough in goal. It was his misfortune to have to try and guess the little fellow's intentions as he ran onto a diagonal pass from Valencia, checking one way, then the other, before slipping the ball into the net.
Quick, balanced and strong, Maradona did so much on the ball that the Scots were left chasing shadows. Arthur Graham scored a consolation goal, but not much else sticks in the memory. Menotti would remark acidly afterwards that "Scotland ran about so much that when they did get the ball they didn't have the energy to do anything".
Argentina, on the other hand, captured the hearts of the crowd with a performance of such verve and finesse that thousands of Scots accorded the champions a deafening ovation. It was a day to say you were there.
SCOTLAND 1 ARGENTINA 0
Glasgow, March 1990
ELEVEN years later, having again triumphed on South American turf in Mexico in 1986, Argentina returned for a second time to Hampden as world champions. However, this time, under the dour regime of manager Carlos Bilardo, the South Americans were largely unimpressive.
Without the services of Maradona, in Japan because of a commercial commitment, Argentina were bereft of inspiration against a Scottish side which handed debuts to Craig Levein, Stuart McCall and Robert Fleck. Aberdeen's Stewart McKimmie made light of the fact he wasn't selected for the original squad by scoring his first goal in five years.
"If you beat the world champions, it has to be a great night," recalled McKimmie. "I honestly don't remember much about the goal beyond thinking I had a lot of time to finish off the move."
As a pointer to that summer's World Cup finals in Italy, though, this friendly proved misleading. For all their shortcomings – they lost the opening match to Cameroon – Argentina scrapped their way to the final, losing 1-0 to Germany. Scotland, on the other hand, succumbed to Costa Rica at the first hurdle and never fully recovered.