1986 was the first time I’d ever heard anyone talk about a group of death and naturally, it was Scotland who had the bad luck to be stuck in it. We got West Germany, Denmark and Uruguay; a two-time winner, the most exciting young team in Europe and the hardest of all the South Americans.
I was 19 when the Mexico World Cup came around and I remember spending large parts of the tournament in pubs. The opening match on a Saturday night was, I think, Bulgaria-Italy, and I watched it with a group of pals in an Edinburgh hostelry. It was lovely and sunny outside.
Pubs back then used to offer free pints of beer when Scotland scored a goal or when England conceded one. The breweries weren’t daft. They knew they wouldn’t be handing out huge amounts of alcohol. (Scotland scored one goal in three games and England conceded one.)
We were unfortunate to lose the first game to Denmark and then we were well beaten by Germany in the second. We had to beat Uruguay in the third match to qualify as one of the best third-placed sides.
But even though Uruguay had a man sent off in 55 seconds, still the fastest ever sending off in a World Cup, I believe, we couldn’t score. It was tragic. Tragically predictable.
The 1986 World Cup was to have much more significance for me in the years to come. Just four years later I found myself living in Mexico City and it was a great thrill to visit many of the grounds where Scotland (and others) had played.
The Estadio Azteca remains one of the most exciting places on the planet to watch a big football match. Unlike in some other big grounds such as the Maracana, you’re close to the action and no matter where you sit you get a great view. The noise of the crowd at pitch level was deafening.
And then a good while after that, sometime in early in the new millennium, I managed to interview Charlie Batista, the Uruguayan who was sent off after 55 seconds. We had a coffee in Buenos Aires and like two old mates meeting up after decades apart we reminisced happily about that fateful day.
“I was sent off and walked back to the dressing room,” he told me with a big smile. “When the kit man saw me he went mad. What the hell are you doing here, he screamed. The game’s about to start. Get out there! I’ve been sent off, I told. That’s impossible, he shouted, get back out. It took me 5 minutes to convince him the game had started and I’d already been sent off.”
It was funny then. And it’s funny now. But back in 1986 it was just one more chapter in Scotland’s footballing failure.