The most Scottish game of all time? When Scotland beat the World Cup finalists but still ended up losing

Was Scotland’s fateful world cup against the Netherlands in 1978 the most ‘Scottish’ game of all time? Well, yes and no. Scotland rallied to one of their greatest performances, knowing they needed to beat the Netherlands by three clear goals in the final group game of the 1978 World Cup. However, in true Tartan Army fashion, they impressed but still came up short, and the lads were on the next plane back to Glasgow. But how did this happen? How did Scotland give themselves an Everest to climb, incredibly almost conquer it, before slipping and falling all the way back down?

Firstly, Scotland’s opposition; the Dutch side of 1974 is largely considered one of the greatest sides to play at the World Cup, losing 2-1 to West Germany in the final. Four years later, whilst the ‘golden era’ for the KNVB had passed, this current side were not far behind, eventually losing in the final again, this time to hosts Argentina. Scotland could not have asked for a much harder task on paper. I use the phrase ‘much harder’ as Scotland’s opponents had one notable absence; Johann Cruyff. Cruyff was arguably one of football’s greatest ever minds both on and off the pitch, but was mysteriously missing from the ‘78 Dutch squad. Some pondered whether Cruyff had fallen out with the Dutch FA over sponsorship deals, or perhaps he objected Argentina’s right-wing military government. The true reason would only revealed thirty years later. Cruyff had been a victim of a kidnapping attempt months before, and feared for his, and his families, safety.

After topping a qualifying group of Czechoslovakia and Wales, Scotland arrived in Argentina in a group with Peru, Iran, and the ‘Oranje’. Going 1-0 up against Peru, a missed penalty and two stunning goals from Teófilo Cubillas led to an extremely demoralising 3-1 defeat. This was followed by an even more disappointing 1-1 draw with Iran, handing them their first ever World Cup point (and only one until 1998). A goalless draw between Peru and the Netherlands meant they were still alive, but needed a three-goal victory in their final group game. Scotland’s task was mammoth, but not impossible.

The Estadio Ciudad de Mendoza, re-named the Estadio Malvinas Argentinas in 1982 (in true military junta style), was the venue for Scotland’s final group game. Whilst Cruyff-less, the Netherland’s high press was led by a front-line of Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens, and Rob Rensenbrink. These names may mean little to the modern football fan, but the fear it struck into the Scottish back line was evident when Stuart Kennedy gave the ball away to Rensenbrink, and then a penalty away to Rep. Rensenbrink made no mistake against Alan Rough, the only goalkeeper at the tournament who was yet to transition to wearing gloves.

In typical Scottish fashion, Scotland found themselves behind after 34 minutes despite playing well enough to be in front. Ten minutes later however, Kenny Dalglish showed exactly why he’s a legend at both Celtic Park and Anfield, smashing home Joe Jordan’s knock-down with a finish almost too good, kissing the ‘postage stamp’ of the Dutch goal. Half-time at one-all. Far from mission accomplished for Ally MacLeod’s side, but still not mission impossible either.
Hope arrived just two minutes into the restart, with Graeme Souness winning Scotland a penalty of their own, and Nottingham Forest’s Archie Gemmill slotting it away for a 2-1 lead. Just two to go. Now if you’ve seen the film Trainspotting, you may know what’s about to happen: Gemmill scored one of the greatest World Cup goals of all time as he slipped past four Dutch defenders with just four touches before lofting over Jan Jongbloed. “It’s THREE-one” roared commentator David Coleman.

The Tartan Army now just needed one more goal to knock out 1974’s finalists, and have 22 minutes to score it. All of this is nearly immediately redundant when Stuart Kennedy almost puts a clearance into his own bottom-left corner. One of the greatest goals in World Cup history is almost followed by one of the greatest own-goals in World Cup history. If Scotland successfully escaped immediate deflation, they would have to settle for near-immediate deflation instead. Two hundred seconds after Gemmill’s goal, Johnny Rep’s striding run was met by a pass from Ruud Krol, and the SC Bastia forward took his chance brilliantly from 25 yards out.

The match ended 3-2, and Scotland were knocked out once again. The game encapsulates the era of Scottish international football; knocked out in the group stages to Brazil in ‘74, the Netherlands in ‘78, and the Soviet Union in ‘82, all three times on goal difference. Whilst being the nearlymen of the World Cup may be a poisoned chalice, it’s one I think most Scotland fans would kill for now.

Image Rights: www.theedinburghblog.co.uk via Wikimedia Commons

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