Friday, 15 April 2011

1989 FIFA Under-16 World Cup

1989 FIFA Under-16 World Cup

Way back in June 1989, Scotland hosted the World Cup.  Or at least the under-16 version of it.  I recall there being little real enthusiasm for the tournament just prior to its commencement, it having been denigrated in one of the daily newspapers as a “Schoolboy” tournament.  Although the likes of Brazil and Argentina were present, none of the European big guns were, and attempts to raise the profile of the showcase were perhaps not helped by the drawing of Scotland in an uninspiring looking group containing Cuba, Ghana and Bahrain.

Predictions of a finals tournament played to practically empty stadia looked to be correct, when Scotland opened the tournament with a dull scoreless draw against Ghana at Hampden, in front of only 6,500 souls.  Attendances elsewhere on the opening day were equally disconcerting: 5,000 at Dundee and, even with the attraction of a youthful Brazil, only 3,300 at Aberdeen.  But attendances didn’t half pick up!

An old school friend and I went along to Tynecastle on the afternoon of June 10th to watch the two opening matches in group D (group games being played as double-headers), having armed ourselves with armloads of biscuits and sweets for the long afternoon.  There were even fewer folks in Tynecastle; just 2,000 having been attracted along to watch Guinea take on Colombia, followed by Portugal v Saudi Arabia.

The Guinea side were a revelation.  They stroked the ball around wonderfully, weaving all manner of pretty patterns, retaining the ball for ages at a time.  But their finishing was utterly woeful; laughably so at times.  I also recall there seemed to be a surprisingly large number of Colombian supporters who had found their way to Tynecastle; decked out in red and yellow with their deep, booming chant of Col-Hombia, Col-Hombia”. 

Portugal were the best of the four on show with, had we but known it, a superstar in the making in their ranks: a 16-year old Luis Figo.  What the Saudis may have lacked in skill they more than made up for in strength, with a number of impressively muscle-bound and suspiciously hirsute looking individuals in their side.

We turned up again a couple of days later to take in another brace of matches featuring the same teams, but the novelty of watching these unknowns had faded somewhat, and my friend decided he would give the third set of matches a miss.  Anyway, Scotland in their second group match had given Cuba a wee hiding, so I decided Fir Park, Motherwell where the final matches in Scotland’s group would take place, was the place to go.

Bahrain were already through to the quarter-finals, with Scotland requiring a point to join them.  Defeat for Scotland would open the door for Cuba or Ghana, who would play in the second match of the evening.  James Beattie had Scotland ahead in only 2 minutes with Bahrain fashioning an equaliser on the half-hour.  Perhaps inevitably, the game petered out to a draw allowing both sides to progress, to the obvious relief of the 13,500 crowd.

Cuba and Ghana then served up a far better match than we had any right to expect given both sides’ elimination minutes before; the scoreline ending 2-2.  The Scottish press had picked up on the fact one of the Ghanaian players was called Willie Brown, and had decided he must have a Scots connection somewhere back in time.  Brown did not start the match, but during the second-half an ever growing chant of “Wullie Broon, Wullie Broon, Wullie Broon!” eminated from the good-natured Fir Park terraces.  No doubt to the bemusement of both the Ghanaian management and the player himself.  

Eventually the Ghana management got the message and said Broon was brought on as a sub to a huge roar.  The poor lad, clearly on an adrenaline high, proceeded to charge around like a headless chicken, being rewarded with an ironic cheer whenever he managed to get anywhere near the ball.  This continued until, during a lull in the game with perfect comedic timing, a lone voice from the terracing was heard to shout to general hilarity, “Wullie Broon! You’re Shite”.  Which, indeed he was. 

Their draw sent Scotland up to Aberdeen to face East Germany, with Bahrain’s dubious reward for winning the group being allowed to host Brazil at Fir Park.  In the end, however, both sides progressed; Bahrain eliminating Brazil on penalties whilst Scotland edged out East Germany 1-0, with a slightly controversial late goal from John Lindsay.  On another day, Lindsay may have been punished for his challenge on the East German ‘keeper prior to the goal.  Thus would Bahrain face Saudi Arabia in one semi-final at Motherwell, whilst Scotland would line up against Portugal at Tynecastle.

Finishing work on the evening of the semi-final, I had persuaded a colleague to feed me and let me park outside his house, if I gave him a lift to his home a few hundred yards from Tynecastle.  But when we reached Gorgie, I could tell something strange was happening.  The streets were full of people – football people - and this was only six o’clock, some 90 minutes before kick-off.  I parked the car, forgot about my tea invitation and hurried along to Tynecastle where the queues were already forming.  

I finally got in around 6:30, a full hour before kick-off.  Then Tynecastle began filling up…..and still the people came.  The stewards began moving people from one area of the ground to another to reduce congestion……and still the people came.  The kick-off was delayed by 40 minutes, as even more people came.  Thousands were, apparently, locked out once the game started. 

Now I had been in Tynecastle before for Hearts v Celtic and Hearts v Hibs matches in the days of terracing, but had never known anything like this.  There were so many people crammed in, it was downright unsafe.  A reported 28,555 (a gross underestimation IMO) were eventually shoe-horned into Tynie, and I don’t know yet how we avoided a major disaster inside the ground.  For 10-15 seconds at a time my feet would not touch the ground, as I was lifted up by the swell of bodies.  The atmosphere in the place was almost tangible.  One felt you could reach out and cut the tension with a knife.  The very air that evening crackled.  And for one of the few times in my life I knew, I was in the right place at the right time. 

Scotland, for the most part, were out-classed and out-passed by a supremely talented Portugese side – in addition to the aforementioned Figo, the squad boasted Abel Xavier, Tulipa, Paulo Santos and Emilio Piexe, all of whom would go on to play for the Portugal full international side.  Scotland hung in during a tense first-half, before somewhat improbably taking the lead in 54 minutes, Celtic’s Brian O’Neill heading in a corner kick.  

As the match progressed Portugal inexorably pressed Scotland further and further back before, with 9 minutes remaining scoring an equalizer - and I think the whole ground felt that was that.  But, then we noticed the Tanzanian linesman (Scotland’s very own Tofik Bahmarov?) on our side had his flag raised, and the goal was disallowed for something.  Offside?  Handball?  A foul on the goalkeeper?  If there was any infringement it was a damned soft one.  A clown behind me shouted “Well Done, Kunta Kinte”.  

He was chastised by his friend, not for his racist comment but told “Don’t offend him.  You might turn him against us”.  The Portugese lads were clearly broken by this decision, and Scotland progressed to the World Cup Final.  And that is a phrase you do not read terribly often.

Saudi Arabia were to be the opponents and, as the day of the final (24th June 1989) approached, I began to feel progressively more pessimistic about how things would pan out.  I tried to do as much as I could to influence the result.  I did not wear my watch to the game (watches can bring bad kharma – everybody knows that), I got to Hampden very early (it is a scientifically proven fact, the earlier one arrives at a ground, the more good luck one brings along with one) and, perhaps most importantly, I consciously attempted not to make too heavy an emotional investment on the outcome – on the premise that the more one wants something in life, the less likely it is to happen.  But the reality is, I wanted us to win this final sooooo much.  I would probably happily have exchanged one of my limbs for a guaranteed victory.

In front of a mind-boggling attendance of almost 52,000, Scotland put in a wonderful first-half display: the best they had played in the tournament by far.  Goals by Ian DOWNIE after only 7 minutes, followed up by Paul DICKOV’s chip from almost on the bye-line 18 minutes later had us all dancing in the sun.  But I began to have serious reservations when the crowd began chanting “Are You watching, England?”  “No, No”, I thought.  This more than anything was inviting disaster.

After the break the Saudi midfield began to take control, as the comparatively undernourished looking Scots lads began to toil in both the un-Scottish heat, and in the face of their decidedly more mature looking opponents.  9 minutes into the second half Saudi Arabia pulled one back, AL-RESHOUDI bashing in a free-kick from the edge of the box.  

A lifeline was thrown the Scots just after the hour, when they were awarded a penalty-kick following a trip on Gary Bollan, but Tynecastle’s hero Brian O’Neill saw his weak effort punched out.  A costly miss indeed, as three minutes later AL-TERAIR drew the Saudis level.  How the Scots lads, looking dead on their feet, managed to reach full-time and then carried on through extra-time without conceding again amazes me yet. 

And so to penalties, and the depressingly inevitable agonies of watching Dickov and O’Neill (again) both miss, leaving AL-ALWI to apply the coup-de grace.  And suddenly all is quiet.  And you stand feeling numb, but glad of the numbness, because numbness delays the inevitable onslaught of hurt.  And the very worst of it, is that it somehow tarnishes the magic of Tynecastle – what was the point of winning a semi-final, if you lose the final?

Walking back to the car, fighting back tears, The Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon” was blaring out of someone’s car stereo as they crawled along in the queue on Kings Park Avenue.  And Mike Scott was singing:

You were there at the turnstiles
with the wind at your heels.
You stretched for the stars
and you know how it feels
to reach too high
too far
too soon.
You saw the whole of the moon!

It somehow fitted the moment.

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