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How Scotland lost the 1978 World Cup

Be a book reviewer
by Julian Taylor

This summer, Scotland are absent from the picturesque Alpine slopes during Euro 2008.

It is in marked contrast to the razzmatazz back in 1978 when the Scots were Britain's sole representatives at the World Cup in Argentina.

Thirty years ago, Scottish football was gripped by a unique, strange kind of madness, with manager, the late Ally MacLeod, and the media lionising the chosen 22 players.

Little did the nation know that, only a few weeks later, those same underachievers would return under a cloud, with their wings clipped.

Gauchito, the Argentina World Cup 78 mascot
Gauchito, the Argentina 1978 World Cup mascot
In 1977, MacLeod guided Scotland to a Home Championship triumph, with a win over England, and qualification for the World Cup was secured in fine fashion over Czechoslovakia and Wales.

With a squad containing names such as Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Joe Jordan, the South American sojourn promised much, with the players given a rousing open-top bus send-off at Hampden Park.

MacLeod's infectious jingoism was lapped up by the Tartan Army, who were only too happy to be swept along on a magic carpet ride.

Graham McColl, in his book '78: How a Nation Lost the World Cup, fully examines this unique tale of national hype and subsequent deflation.

Scotland headed home in ignominy following a shock defeat against Peru, a dismal draw with Iran and a too-little-too-late stirring victory against eventual finalists, Holland.

The author speaks at length to many of those involved and asks why Argentina became such a graveyard for Scottish ambitions - even to the extent of spilling over into public and political life.

Scotland fans at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina
Scots fans in Argentina loved Ally MacLeod's infectious enthusiasm
Perhaps, as McColl investigates, the signs were ominous when the squad had a disagreement with the Scottish Football Association over bonus payments.

For some, like Lou Macari, it was a major issue, while others were more philosophical and simply proud to be representing Scotland at a World Cup.

The 3-1 loss to the Peruvians exposed MacLeod's lack of preparation on the opposition and the Scots were accused of complacency.

And to cap the misery there was the Willie Johnston drugs scandal, with the winger being sent home after testing positive for a banned stimulant.

Johnston speaks of his frustration, and how he felt he was made a scapegoat in the middle of an SFA damage-limitation exercise.

As for the team itself? The embarrassment against Iran revealed that Scotland were, perhaps, not the world-beaters the enthusiastic boss had proclaimed.

But the win over the Dutch, with Archie Gemmill's sublime goal, was just oh-so-Scotland in its unfolding drama.

Ally MacLeod
MacLeod feels the pressure as his pre-tournament hype evaporates
But his wonder strike in the Estadio Mendoza was not enough to absolve the team of its earlier calamities.

McColl suggests, in hindsight, that certain players were past their peak by the time the Cordoba and Mendoza matches appeared on the horizon and MacLeod erred by sticking loyally with those who had earned qualification.

Would things have been different if, for example, free-scoring Derek Johnstone had been selected to partner Dalglish?

Who knows! But what remains is, oddly, an affectionate memory from supporters for those crazy times under MacLeod, one of football's true mavericks.

Perhaps it is because, deep down, Scots know that if hype and bravado alone wins World Cups, 1978 was their finest hour.

Argentina may have been chastening at the time but it has brought a softer focus 30 years on.

McColl brings a fresh perspective to an era when a gifted Scotland side got carried away on an ill-fated odyssey.

The book is an essential read for fans old enough to recall a colourful and charismatic manager and for those fascinated with the Scottish national psyche, particularly when it comes to its unpredictable football team.

'78: How a Nation Lost the World Cup by Graham McColl is out now, published by Headline.



see also
World Cup history - Argentina 1978
04 May 06 |  World Cup 2006
When Wembley turned tartan
28 May 07 |  Scotland
Ally McLeod - a national treasure
07 Feb 04 |  Scotland


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