World Cup 98: The Qualifying Campaign
A Tour de France
Despite the highly-tempered transport strike in Paris, the draw for the World Cup qualifying rounds was able to proceed on schedule, this on December 12th 1995 and within the presence of French president Jacques Chirac. The event was screened worldwide from Louvre in which an estimated two billion people from six continents witnessed.
France the hosts, and Brazil as the 1994 winners gained automatic entry for a 32-team tournament in which an astounding record number of 172 nations far and wide were to compete for the 30 remaining places available – in what would be the biggest qualifying process of all time.
The draw beginning at 5.00 pm in Paris brought together the most interesting of groupings, especially from the European section. Two days before the lottery FIFA assembled all systems that would be used throughout the qualifying period with the world ruling body accepting a compromise plan from UEFA. This followed a request from the leading nations into changing a format that constructed a system of 7 teams in seven groups in which the winner and runner- up would have proceeded to the finals. However, in fear of the playing too many games, top nations revolted with FIFA to change the system to another format. The new proposal was to split the groups into nine sections, five groups of 5 teams, four groups of 6 teams with the best runner-up to qualify automatically with all group winners, leaving the other eight runners-up drawn into pairs to contest the final four European places.
While many of the continents best teams geared towards the forthcoming European Nations finals in England, proceedings had already begun in the European section.
Group 1 brought together an amazing trio of three member states of the former Yugoslavia fresh from the ceasing of hostilities…Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. FIFA had taken no measures to keep them apart. It started with Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia for an historic meeting in neutral Italy. The side deemed to be away Croatia showed its neighbours that it had a long way to climb up the international ladder. The European champions at the time Denmark (later to smart from a first round exit at Euro-96), and Greece (the worst side of the last World Cup) made up the five-team group. The Danes and Europe’s newest football power Croatia had been expected to contest the top position. But it would not go all their own way with Croatia to find themselves in the greatest of danger of dropping out of contention for qualification, this following the horrendous performance at home to Slovenia. They had already lost points on home soil to both Greece and then Denmark. It became a total of six lost home points as neighbouring Slovenia held out for a 3-3 draw. The Danes too had suffered a nightmare that saw them bowled out by three goals in Banaloka by Bosnia & Herzegovina. It surpassed Bosnia’s previous best result of defeating Italy 2-1. Peter Schmeichel in his own personal nightmare, as in the 3-0 Croatia defeat at the Euro’s, gave away two penalties that were buried by Elivar Bolic.
After destroying Denmark, Bosnia & Herzegovina almost put paid to Croatia’s hopes, this after coming back from two goals down to draw level. Croatia only gained its victory with a winner eight minutes from time through captain Zvonimir Boban. Croatia then travelled to Copenhagen for a tie of extreme importance that would go a long way into deciding the final outcome of the group. The Croats would be crushed by half-time as Denmark produced the performance of its campaign with Davor Suker’s goal adding respectability to a 3-1 defeat. At the time it would not be known how crucial that goal would be as the Danes finally avenged the humiliation of Euro-96. Denmark, Greece, and Croatia were the teams still in contention for the first two positions. The Danes were in need of only the draw as they paid a visit to the Greek capital with a defeat not necessarily to send them out either. For Greece it was within their own hands, a victory over the Danes would win them the group, while a defeat or a draw would effectively send them out depending on whether or not Croatia failed to beat Slovenia. Nothing less than a Croatian win would be sufficient, even then that might not be enough should the Greeks win. Anyway, Croatia did their job easily enough with the 3-1 victory in the Slovenian capital. In Athens, 70,000 patriotic fans crowded into the Olympic stadium as Denmark, under intense pressure had its keeper Peter Schmeichel to thank for maintaining its grip on the leadership with a series of outstanding saves that would send the Greeks out. The match was held up for seven minutes as Greek frustration within the crowd boiled over with fireworks thrust onto the pitch. Denmark went directly to France while Croatia bundled into the play-off series. It was only now that the Croatians knew how important Davor Suker’s consolation in Denmark had become for had he not scored it…
Group 2 brought into conflict two of football’s world powers; 3-times former winners and 94 runners-up Italy against one-time winner England. The Italians were expected to rid itself of Arrigo Saachi (if all the reports were anything to go by circulating) while England were under manager Glenn Hoddle. The World Cup would not have been the same without old foes Poland whom they (England) had been grouped with in 1990, 94 and in the 1992 European Nations qualifiers. Though England qualified at the expense of Poland on all those occasions (also inflicting a damaging 3-0 1986 World Cup defeat) it had been the eastern Europeans that inflicted one of England’s greatest heartaches by denying them passage into the finals of 74; this when Brian Clough’s clown Jan Tomaszewski came to the fore. All three nations were to have first-ever historical confrontations with former Soviet states Georgia and Moldova whom proved to be no pushover in recent qualifying campaigns. They surely wouldn’t qualify, but looked well capable of taking a couple of points off the favourites, especially at home.
England versus Italy was to capture the imagination everywhere and promised to be a mouth-watering spectacle. The Italians had not lost competitively to them for 17 years and denied the English a place at the 78 Argentina finals. The Azzurri prolonged its record as they achieved an historic 1-0 victory at Wembley with the home side losing its proud record of never having lost a Wembley World Cup qualifier in 28 games. It was a match to see coach Glenn Hoddle make his first and biggest mistake in a short four-game career by leaving out Lesley Ferdinand in preference to Matthew Le Tissier; the Italians had feared the big striker’s aerial ability. As had been expected Italy arrived with a new coach – Cesare Maldini, father of captain Paolo. It was a new signing to the English game, Gianfranco Zola, a four-million pound signing from Parma that fired the visitors ahead on 18 minutes. Italy’s performance was a throwback to the old days of Gentile, Sceria, and Cabrini; Shearer stifled out just like Gary Lineker had been in 3 games against the Azzuri. Unbeaten Italy, from having everything within its own destiny, let it all slip, following consecutive scoreless blanks away from home with Cesare Maldini for the first time in his management to come under fire. It meant that the pendulum could swing England’s way should they as expected defeat Moldova at Wembley. It was to be the first time in fifty years that England achieved three successive World Cup victories. The group concluded with England travelling to Rome for a clash with the Azzuri, requiring just the draw in order to preserve the one point advantage over the Italians. The home side looked for its 16th consecutive World Cup qualifying win in the Roman capital where England’s last World Cup visit 20 years earlier had seen them lose a crucial encounter 2-0. Since the loss at home to the Italians the English had become a much improved outfit and gained a morale boosting summer 2-0 win over the Azzuri in neutral France.
On the night; England produced its performance of the campaign as they comfortably kept out the three-man Italian attack of Zola-Inzaghi-Vieri as goalkeeper David Seaman was to remain largely untested as England proceeded while Italy’s path remained unclear.
Group 3 grouped together four nations with an equal chance of qualification, favourites Norway, Hungary, Switzerland and Finland. It was to be a disastrous debut for Switzerland’s new coach as his team never recovered from an opening day loss to a side Azerbaijan, on the fringes of being Europe’s worst side – 1-0 the unbelievable scoreline. A four-day period later down the fixtures list saw Switzerland’s World Cup qualification hopes extinguished, Finland to gain revenge for a home defeat to the Swiss (2-1) before Norway romped to a 5-0 win in Oslo.
Norway had virtually confirmed its qualification from Group 3 with clinical destructions of neighbouring Finland by four goals in Helsinki.
The final business of the group was in Helsinki where Finland went into its final match needing to defeat Hungary in order to make the play-offs, at the visiting team’s expense. They led with mere seconds remaining before the freakiest of goals gave Hungary an undeserved second chance. Moments earlier the Finns missed the most glaring of opportunities to have booked the runners-up spot. Hungary had another chance while the stunned Finns went to hell but not back.
Third-placed at the World Cup of 94 Sweden were seeded to head the first 6-team group with Scotland and a re-emerging Austria, finalists of 1990. Three former ex-pat Soviet states made up the group; Latvia whom defeated Austria, Belarus whom defeated Holland, and Estonia the weakest whom defeated no-one of note.
Andreas Herzog’s wondrous strike nine minutes from time in a bruising Vienna contest with Sweden put the home nation in Pole position within the group standings. As time and results followed group leaders Austria, ready to face Belarus, found themselves assured of the first two positions. Scotland took to the field against Latvia at Celtic Park merely requiring the win to qualify as best runner-up. Only a defeat could catapult them out of the first two places, however unlikely, but not impossible. Sweden basically needed a Scottish slip up and a win over Estonia which they did. In Vienna a packed house saw the game won by half-time with four goals crashed into the Belarus net. Toni Polster and Peter Stoger shared two goals each as Austria qualified for its first finals since 1990. Scotland joined them as Herzog was to become the thorn in Swedish hopes – again – with yet another winner to effectively put them out in a fixture that saw the dismissal of 3 men including Austria’s keeper Fedric Konsel.
Group 5 singled out Russia as the main threat to 1994 semi-finalists Bulgaria. Israel realistically would be the only side capable of upsetting those two. The group opened up with Israel to cause a real sensation following a dream 2-1 victory in Tel-Aviv over Bulgaria. Now in the vying for a place themselves they were on the wrong end of a 2-0 upset at the hands of Cyprus to effectively damage their hopes severely. By then Bulgaria had recovered to take a firm hold on the group ahead of Russia – a frantic 1-0 victory confirming its qualification. Tristov Ivanov headed the winning goal that would be cause for great celebration
In Sofia a goal from substitute Luboslav Penev put an end to Israeli’s hopes of qualification, the result to avenge the 2-1 defeat in Tel-Aviv as Russia proceeded to a play-off instead.
Group 6 had the look of the most competitive section combining Spain and the Czech Republic, who became famed for their run at Euro-96, its neighbours Slovakia and Yugoslavia – inactive since expulsion in 1992.
Between the months November 1996 to February 1997 was to see the Spanish strengthen its tight grip on this group and move 4 points clear of its nearest rival. They had already smashed Slovakia before triumphing 2-0 in the game of the group at home to Yugoslavia. The 3-0 away win in Malta a few months earlier was followed by a four-goal avalanche in Seville.
Euro-96 finalists Czech Republic went into the home match with Yugoslavia needing to gain revenge for a loss in Belgrade five months earlier, certainly if it wanted to reach the finals. In the end it seemed that they would not be going after Yugoslavia surely ended yet another dream by scoring a winner four minutes from time through Savo Milosevic for a 2-1 win. Spain confirmed its status as the superior nation in the section (topping the group) with a 3-1 defeat of Faroe Islands with Luis Enrique putting the side 2-0 ahead before a goal was pulled back as nerves were on edge until the 84th minute.
The Spanish then overcame a spirited Czech Republic team by a single goal, this to mathematically eliminate them and help send Yugoslavia into a play-off.
Group 7 paired neighbouring Holland and Belgium, nations that had come head-to-head on many occasions. Posing the biggest threat would be Turkey, qualifiers for Euro-96, and not a poor Welsh side that came so close to reaching the last World Cup. Belgium-Holland was one of the continent’s most intriguing games on the fixture list and would go a long way to see which of these two rivals would take a hold on the group. The last game of significance had seen the Belgians record a 1-0 victory at the America finals of 94 with Philippe Albert’s goal to separate the teams in what was a European classic. It was to be very different today with the home side’s defence in chaotic form as Dennis Bergkamp and Clarence Seedorf crashed the visitors into a two goal half-time lead before Wim Jonk rounded off the tally by slotting a third from a penalty kick. With convincing wins over Wales (twice) and Belgium in Brussels the Dutch looked a good bet for claiming top-spot. The game with Wales in Eindhoven had been a total one-sided affair as Welsh boss Bobby Gould suffered his biggest humiliation in football. It was a 7-1 hammering by rampant Holland, now fully-recovered from a disappointing Euro-96 campaign. Another outstanding Neville Southall performance was not even nearly enough.
With old warhorse Wilfred Van-Moer dismissed (after the crushing loss to Holland) Belgium were now under new management. But they still looked a side in chaos following a resounding friendly loss in Belfast. They returned to Britain for a duel with the Welsh; in two previous visits in the recent 90s Belgium had lost 2-0 and 3-1. However, under Georges Leekens Belgium left with a vital 2-1 win that surely ended Welsh hopes…yet again. Holland, winners of all its previous ties, stumbled for the first time in Turkey with a 1-0 loss. The Turks moved within 5 points of the Dutch, minus Dennis Bergkamp – for fear of flying. From the depths of decimation would Belgium re-ignite its campaign and put themselves further into contention at the top as they achieved something that leaders Holland failed to do by winning in Turkey. This curtsy of a superb hat-trick from Luis Oliveria with Turkey’s only consolation in that that they scored the game’s best goal. Holland confirmed its group superiority with an impressive 3-1 home defeat of a revitalised Belgium that kept the home side at bay with a packed defence; before Jaap Stam headed them in front with his first ever goal. A second from Patrick Kluivert seemed to finish Belgium who found temporary hope when Lorenzo Staelens pulled a goal back from the penalty spot. The match was ended as a contest when Bergkamp killed off the opposition to virtually confirm the nations qualification – this bar a miracle 13-goal victory for its neighbours over Wales and a home defeat to Turkey. Wales, with a habit of conceding an avalanche of goals, conceded three more in only the first-half of a clash in Belgium making it a total of 21 in 8 games. Staelens, Claessens and Wilmots all scored as the home team looked to confirm its place in the top two positions. However, with Ryan Giggs in tormenting form Wales were to give the host the most serious of frights with a strong fightback and two goals; Giggs won a penalty that was converted before touching in the second. Belgium’s win ended the hopes of Turkey who could not manage to gain the victory in Holland. It would have mattered little had they won because of Belgium’s victory. Holland gained the point that confirmed its topping of the group.
Group 8 looked a two-horse battle between Romania and the Irish Republic, this in a six-team group containing Macedonia, Lithuania and Iceland who looked all unlikely to trouble either.
The Republic of Ireland team was now under reconstruction following the end of the Jack Charlton era. Mick McCarthy was the man entrusted with restoring some of glory back to Ireland.
It looked pretty certain from the onset that Romania with 4 wins, 18 goals and no goals conceded would not fail to win this Group 8. They made it 5 wins with yet another away victory, on this occasion in Lithuania by the goal. With the 4-2 home victory over the Macedonians in Bucharest, this for a seventh consecutive win, they became Europe’s first qualifiers. Seven became eight out of eight with an eight-goal spree following a visit to Liechtenstein whom could only reply the once. As expected, Republic of Ireland confirmed its second place finish by taking the first points off Romania with a 1-1 draw. It dashed the hopes of the visitors taking a maximum thirty points. Hagi’s goal seemed to have been enough, but it was not to be as Tony Cascarino equalised six minutes from time.
The team that everybody wanted to avoid ‘Germany’ headed group 9 with Portugal and Ukraine looking the biggest threat to their expected qualification. Northern Ireland (whom had a great current record against Germany), Armenia, and Albania joined those with the nerve racking task of competing against a nation with a record unmatchable in world football. It looked a truly interesting process as one or two of the big guns would surely fall by the wayside.
In Germany’s first home game since winning against the Czechs at Wembley Northern Ireland, unbeaten in a competitive match against its illustrious opponents in 19 years, produced an almighty performance to hold them 1-1. Armenia caused an even bigger upset following the no-score draw with the fancied Portuguese.
After having fallen behind to a goal from Michael Hughes in the Belfast return Germany showed its great powers of recovery – the turning point coming with the introduction of Oliver Bierhoff for Ulf Kirsten. With Hassler the main assist Udinese’s top-striker completed a stunning hat-trick within a 13-minute period burying the home side’s qualifying aspirations in the process. The section came to a head with the clash of the giants in Berlin; Portugal the better team looked to be handing Germany only its second ever qualifying defeat. They had been responsible for the first in 1985 when Carlos Manuel stunned the home side. Barbosa was the man for the occasion this time as Portugal went temporarily ahead of Germany on points. However, they failed to keep its lead as Ulf Kirsten, a substitute, crashed in an equaliser to preserve the nations undefeated group record. Rui Costa saw himself dismissed after taking too long to remove himself from the pitch. Albania with a habit of upsetting German predictions gave the home side yet another almighty tussle and thanks to Kohler’s well-directed own goal they took a shock lead as a frustrated Vogts looked on nervously. It looked like things had turned around when Bierhoff put the side 2-1 up. However, Albania, not dead yet equalised twice in the final nine minutes before Bierhoff headed an injury time face-saving winner past the half-hearted dive from the keeper. Germany’s top-spot had been confirmed with Ukraine to move into the play-offs following a 2-0 win in Armenia. Portugal’s 1-0 win over the Irish would not be enough to keep them in the tournament.
Europe’s final four places would be decided by way of 8 teams contesting two-legged play-off duels.
The final eight were to be Croatia, Italy, Hungary, Russia, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Republic of Ireland and Ukraine to compete in October and November ties. Most sides wanted to draw either Hungary or Republic of Ireland with a revitalised Belgium a close third.
All teams would rue crucial lost points during its own qualifying campaigns. Croatia dropped 6 points in consecutive home matches, Italy’s failure to win in either Poland or Georgia while Yugoslavia and Republic of Ireland found Romania and Spain easily the better team as did Hungary the luckiest of the play-off teams found Norway. Belgium’s double loss to Holland proved the deciding factor in Group 7 as was Ukraine’s failure to defeat Armenia on home soil. Russia’s draws in Israel and Cyprus enabled Bulgaria to proceed.
After all the analysis the draw was completed and brought together some interesting pairings; none so more than Italy’s heart-stopping clash with the Russians. It was the draw an under pressure Maldini did not want just as his captain and son had already stated beforehand. Both coaches of Ireland and Belgium seemed pleased at their own matching while Yugoslavia’s pairing with Hungary kept them apart from a politically explosive encounter with Croatia who would take on Ukraine, who themselves had avoided a political battlefield clash with Russia.
In Dublin Belgium made themselves the slight favourites for progression following a 1-1 draw in which the home side saw themselves often outplayed and lucky to avoid defeat. It had looked so good when Dennis Irwin gave Ireland an early free-kick lead. However, Belgium came back to take control with Luc Nilis – the outstanding man a field – to drive a 30th minute equaliser.
Sub-zero temperatures and a blanket of snow greeted Italy’s visit to Moscow for the tie of the play-offs. Cesare Maldini opted for Italy’s sturdy combination of Ravenelli-Vieri rather than the finesse of Zola-Del Piero. The decision paid off when Vieri shot the Azzuri in front, but under strong pressure the Russians equalised minutes later to earn the draw – Canavarro to slide the ball into his own net. Italy’s goal would be their first ever in Russia.
In an attempt to overcome the more talented Yugoslavs in the home clash, Hungary looked to put a reliance on strong team ethics. The teamwork talked of deserted them as the visitors pulled off the result of the play-offs and perhaps of the entire European campaign as they marched away with an incredible 7-1 victory. The tie was effectively over within just 10 minutes with Pedrag Mijatovic hitting five goals.
With the fine home display in Zagreb, Croatia took a crucial step to France with a 2-0 win over the Ukrainians. Slaven Bilic gave the home side an early lead with Goran Vlaovic to seal victory in the second.
The return of hostilities would see all the favourites, not unexpectedly proceed to the finals of 98.
Yugoslavia’s progression had never been in doubt and sealed it with yet another drubbing of Hungary’s worst team in an era of bad teams. Pedrag Mijatovic’s tally for the two encounters was a staggering seven goals.
Italy needed the finishing of Perluigi Casiraghi to calm the nerves of a nation as Russia in a tight Naples duel saw itself edged out of the World Cup.
Croatia had to overcome heavy pressure in Ukraine before it took its place in the finals with Alein Boksic grabbing the equaliser that put an end to Ukrainian hopes. At 1-0 Ukraine had a perfectly legitimate second goal wiped out while a goal on 69 minutes from Luc Nilis in Brussels took Belgium to a fifth successive finals. This was after it had looked like the Republic would take the tie into extra-time. Luis Oliveria had shot the home side into a half-time lead – It was close with Brussels to go mad.
A TOUR DE FRANCE
The wait and hype was over as football’s biggest extravaganza was back on.
In keeping with tradition, Brazil as the holders would kick off the biggest and richest finals series of all time. The world held its breath as the anticipation and speculation was to come to a close, this with the unprecedented champions of 1994 taking on Scotland at Paris’s new Stade de France stadium. It was to be Scotland’s biggest test and match of all time with most of the two billion watching audience and the 80,000 crowd expecting them to have two chances – slim and none.
Brazilian coach Mario Zagallo, a World Cup winner twice as a player, once as a coach and once as an assistant coach, had at his disposal a frightening depth of talent, the best of which was a player considered to be the undisputed King of world soccer – Ronaldo. This free-scoring goal machine, Brazil’s cutting edge in attack, possessed a God-given brilliance. He was blessed with devastating speed and killer finishing instincts combined with a power and aggression that instilled fear and apprehension through the spines of defenders. He was considered the favourite to become the finals top goals marksman. Only one man, Gregorz Lato had scored more than six goals since 1974. Such was Brazil’s confidence that they had the team picked more than a month earlier. As ever it did not go to plan with Romario’s loss through injury leaving Bebeto and Edmundo to contest the vacant striking position. Provocative, immensely popular and a talented player Edmundo was the bad-boy of Brazilian soccer – once sent-off five times in one season. He was to lose the vote as Bebeto, 34-years-old and short of match practice won Zagallo over. There would be no such surprises in the rest of the line-up as Taffarel competing at his third World Cup was to make an eleventh appearance in goal. Aldair passed fit, after recovering from sore leg muscles, lined-up alongside Junior Biano, Roberto Carlos, and Cafu in defence. The team with an abundance of midfield talent selected Dunga to again captain the team with the Giovanni-Rivaldo pairing up leaving Denilson on the bench while Cesar Sampaio took the other position. Scotland, presented with the dubious pleasure of facing Brazil, aimed to make an historical leap into the latter stages. Goalkeeper Jim Leighton would be the oldest player at the finals at almost 40-years of age. After his mistake prevented Scotland from attaining a draw against Brazil in Turin 1990 his career came to a standstill – they would only be minutes away from surviving. The nation counted heavily on a defence that only conceded eight goals in 24 games; no team had scored more than two goals against them in four and a half years under the reign of the meticulous Craig Brown. Craig Burley, John Collins, and Paul Lambert dominated midfield while Darren Jackson would be handed the vital key role behind the main strikers Gordon Durie and Kevin Gallacher. This came nine months after major brain surgery. Scotland had 14 of the players in the squad that represented the nation at Euro-96.
For Scotland to win, it had to produce its greatest performance of all time. However, though facing a mountainous task, unlike in basketball with the ‘Dream Team,’ upsets were possible in football. Since beating Germany in March, Brazil’s form had been in decline with Argentina winning a massive match in the Maracana 1-0 for a first victory in the country for 28 years.
Scotland’s finest result had been holding the Brazilians 0-0 in Frankfurt 1974. Defeat for them would be emphatic some 8 years later when they got outplayed by one of the best teams of the last 20 years. In 8 games they had yet to become victorious against their illustrious opponents, six lost while drawing two.
The odds would lengthen considerably in just four minutes following the most awful of starts, disaster to strike early. Eluding two defenders on the near post Cesar Sampaio was to head Brazil in front with the help of the shoulder. Bebeto had delivered the kick from the corner as Scotland paid for a basic error. A minute or so earlier the Scottish had cried out for a penalty after Gordon Durie had tumbled over. In truth he did not have the pace to finish the move after seeing the gap. Further near catastrophe followed with a lack of communication in Scotland’s defence to almost result in an own goal for Colin Hendry, this after Jim Leighton had failed to make the call. Sampaio caused the confusion with the ball to bounce just the wrong side of the post. Leighton redeemed himself three minutes later when he was forced fully-stretched to push out Roberto Carlos’s vicious and powerful drive from the left. In a tense, anxious and slow opening, Scotland had been unable to keep the ball, struggling of all places in the air as they were forced to work really hard; unfortunately, this without the ball. It would be 19 minutes before the world sampled, out of nothing, the brilliance of that genius Ronaldo. Strong, quick he bewitched Scotland’s defenders, turning inside, outside and changing direction before seeing his low strike from an acute angle well saved by Leighton diving to the right; the world waited to see Scotland clinically dismantled. An aggressive and over-eager Darren Jackson, after making late contact on the ankle of Dunga, became the first man booked at the finals on 24 minutes. Suddenly encouraged by their band of 15,000 fans, nervous and outplayed Scotland had its best spell as the contest improved as a spectacle. The long legs of Junior Biano were needed to prevent Gallacher’s cross from reaching the head of Gordon Durie. Within minutes the crowd was brought to its feet after Cesar Sampaio, turning from hero to villain, not only received a yellow card but also conceded a penalty kick. This for an apparent shove on Kevin Gallacher, it looked rather questionable! John Collins, winning a 50th cap did not complain as he majestically put his country back on level terms with an 11th international goal. A jubilant Scottish team, growing in stature and having showed a lot of character, needed to retain all of its concentration to go in at half-time level. They had been well rewarded for a fine ten minute spell and survived as the miracle was still on. A massive roar from the fans brought a conclusion to the period as Brazil’s strolling players looked a far cry from their elevated status as the best team on the planet.
Leonardo replaced the disappointing and confident lacking Giovanni for the start of the second period. It was Giovanni’s teammate at Barcelona, Rivaldo who was to have the period’s two opening attempts within five minutes. The first, a fine jinxing run ended with an effort that skidded just past Leighton’s post before showing his range from distance with his second attempt – the effort to sizzle just over. Though relatively uninvolved Ronaldo was to show his true class; the running off the ball, the sharpness, the burst of pace and the fine back heel. However, a better pull-back from Gallacher, following a burst into the box, might have given Brazil a real shock as Collins and Durie lay unmarked and in wait for the precise pass. Playing with spirit and courage Scotland had continued from where they had left of in the first-half as Brazil presently did not look likely to score, this as time ticked away. Having played largely unnoticed, Bebeto saw himself replaced by Denilson, football’s most expensive player at 21.5 million pounds. He seemed to move into the second striker’s position as Edmundo was overlooked. Within a minute, Leighton easily met his strike along the ground. Then Bang! On 73 minutes, cruelty at its worst reared its head with a freak own goal from Tommy Boyd. The ball, after Leighton had seen out Cafu’s attempted lob, was to cannon into the net off his shoulder. The man who had won over 50 caps would now suffer heartbreak – he led Celtic to its first Scottish title in 10 years. Scotland had been preparing to bring on Tosh McKinley. The goal sparked a confidence within Brazil’s play with the ball sprayed around willingly and easily as possession was kept supremely. With Christian Dailly in wait Gordon Durie went for the over-ambitious with his driven attempt sent over as a result. In a reasonable position on goal the striker then saw his drive met comfortably by Taffarel while Gallacher, unable to steady himself, saw his own way off target. Ronaldo then displayed pure greed when he failed to find the man free in space with the driven effort sent sizzling over. The concern could be seen spread all over the face of an unsteady looking Zagallo as determined Scotland pushed by its fans poured forward in final hope. Time would not be on their side as the best team shaded it in finest opening game for many a year. It had been the first time that three goals had been scored in an opening encounter since 1958. A special mention should be given for the way a lenient Jose Garcia Aranda managed the contest, this despite making an obvious mistake with the penalty award for Scotland – Brazil were not complaining now as they gained a win in what was an absorbing game, but only just.
In the second match of the finals and of Group A, a win for either Morocco or Norway would go a long way in seeing them progress into the knockout rounds. Just a few hours earlier both Henri Michel and Egil Olsen had received a boost following the 2-1 victory for tournament favourites Brazil over the plucky Scots. An intriguing contrast of styles was expected as 29,750 fans filled into Montpellier’s stadium on a slightly cool night in what had a wonderful atmosphere.
Norway, unbeaten in 14 months and today’s favourites, were able to pick from a fully-strength squad. The team starting with 7 men from the English Premiership, thirty plied there trade there, fielded an expected 4-5-1 formation in an experienced line-up. The gangling and tall, Tore Andre Flo a scorer of 15 goals in 23 starts for Chelsea was to lead the attack while Ole Gunnar Solksjaer and Flo’s cousin Havard – officially left-sided midfielders – offered the support. Two of Solksjaer’s Man United colleagues, Henning Berg and Ronny Johnson also took their places as London-based Frode Grodas retained Olsen’s faith in goal. Norway, powerful, direct and compact, believed their workrate, athleticism, and organisation would see them win the game. They reached these finals without losing a single group match; neither did Morocco for that matter. The Moroccans, appearing in its 11th World Cup finals clash, were boosted by the recovery to fitness of star defender Nourrenddine Naybet whom had suffered a twisted ankle. He was widely regarded as Africa’s best defender. The 22/1 outsiders to win the group had been further boosted by the news that midfield kingpin Mustapha Hadji, despite a broken toe, was to play through the pain barrier. Determined to banish the failure of 1994 they had proven to be a defensively strong, technically good and a fine passing team. Its team had players spread in the Spanish, Portuguese, and French leagues and they too went 14 months unbeaten. Of the 22 players on view only one was home-based. It wouldn’t be difficult to see why when the match started.
Norway’s tactic was to be in evidence almost immediately with Ole Gunnar Solksjaer presented with an opportunity to crash the opening goal within four minutes, this despite suspiciously handling Stig Bjornebye’s diagonal crossfield ball. Yards-out he blazed the chance off target. The match proved to be much livelier than that of the opening clash, the physical and competitive Norwegians to take the initiative as Morocco’s defence lived on its nerves and did not gain any composure for 10 minutes. A rip-roaring midfield run from Leonardson almost paved a way straight through Morocco’s defence, unable to cope at present with the high surmount of diagonal and high balls. Moments after a fine display of nifty footwork that ended with an ambitious long-range shot, Hadji then saw a finer effort well saved by the diving Grodas. The fast-paced Hadji-Bassir combination looked to be Morocco’s most effective weapon. There seemed little caution taken to the wind as both set sights firmly on attack with Morocco slowly but surely having the upper hand, Norway seeming to have handed the initiative to the North Africans – for the time being at least. One was to again be impressed with the referring as the Thai official, like the Spaniard earlier, allowed the contest to flow unimpeded and without interruption. Morocco’s best chance arrived on 36 minutes when Chiba forced himself through Norway’s flagging defence, unable to cope with Morocco’s precise passing, movement and ball-to-feet approach. The close-range volley was to beat the near post. It mattered little as the best player on the pitch, a pony-tailed 27-year-old Mustapha Hadji, swept Morocco into the lead, and deservedly so at that. Receiving the superbly angled 50-yard pass from Tahar, showing superb instant control, he used his magical skills to waltz and dummy past Eggen – mesmerized by the footwork – before perfectly planting the ball low past Grodas. Morocco, a breath of fresh air and playing with a fine exuberance had now totally taken over the game as Norway looked a shambles – a rarity over the years. However from being out of the game, Norway in first-half stoppage time equalised. This thanks to the second own goal of the finals from an unlucky and horrified Yusef Chippo who misdirected his headed clearance from Henning Berg’s looped header into his own net. Dris Benzekri failed to get sufficient contact to repel the attempt. Very soon the whistle went for an intermission.
Twenty-six-year-old Vidar Riseth made an entrance in place of the out of positioned Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. It was said that Riseth had played in ten different positions. The game restarted as if there had been no half-time break as the fans voiced its approval of current events. Anxious moments appeared at both ends within the opening five minutes with Naybet to atone for a mistake to get his nation out of trouble while Grodas in Norway’s goal did well to keep his nation on level terms; just as he would four minutes later after he got down well to deny Bassir. The keeper was then required a third time after Tahar had whipped in a fine ball. The pinpointed cross met with a flying diving Hadda header forced him into a fine push out save. Grodas was left with little chance as the same man Abdeljilil Hadda emphatically, after making a well-timed run with expert control in a show of three fine touches, and then dispatched the ball past him. But again Morocco let the lead slip within two minutes as Norway equalised from an almost identical set-piece situation. An optimistic Dan Eggen was to scramble the ball in with a header through a posse of players past the blameable Dris Benzekri. Morocco’s deficiency in the air would almost be exposed again five minutes later with Leonardson the man looking to exploit. The bumbling and fully- stretched Benzekri redeemed himself on 66 minutes with the save of the match to deny Havard Flo with a fine reaction save after a fine hook on the turn from the cousin of Tore Andre Flo. With still half of the game to go the contest hung in the balance in a match hard to predict. Though it must be said that the game psychologically looked to have swung Norway’s way as Morocco’s spirit seemingly looked to have taken a knock by the conceded equaliser. Riseth’s header just beat the right-hand post while Stale Solbakken, who had just replaced Havard Flo, saw his stabbed effort yards-out cleared off the line following the ensuing scramble. More misplaced passes were in evidence as time ran out with the teams seeming to suffer from tiredness, but they would still go all out for the priceless win. Norway’s best player Dan Eggen saw another headed attempt, this in an overcrowded box go perilously close; keeper Benzekri nowhere to be seen. Naybet, a true class act, made the vital interception that was to deny Leonardson as he attempted to squeeze in on goal. It would be the last significant action of an excellent game with hope yet given to Scotland, this as today’s competitors remained within distance.