Although I watched the 1974 World Cup finals as an eight-year-old recently converted to football, 1978 is the earliest tournament I properly remember. And I was the only one among the football fans at our rugby-playing school who tipped hosts Argentina to win. For the second World Cup finals in succession, the Anglophile British media had to pretend to support Scotland. While Scotland indulged in English-style hype that they could actually win the competition – despite warnings from a dismal Home International Championships immediately before manager Ally MacLeod’s side travelled to Argentina.

Although Scotland beat European champions Czechoslovakia to qualify, European victory in South America was still a fanciful notion. However, International football analysis was still taught at the Corporal Jones school of foreigners not liking “it up them.” So the idea persisted that gap-toothed striker Joe Jordan could terrify opposition defences by little more than smiling at them.
International football TV coverage in 1978 was blighted by poor sound and pictures. But many of my generation thought the fuzzy images and commentaries added to the atmosphere, making “foreign” crowds sound louder and more volatile. And Argentina 1978 added… ticker-tape. If we’d seen ticker-tape at all it was from footage of triumphal parades through American city streets by military or sporting heroes, showers of the stuff emerging from the skyscrapers which flanked them.  Yes, it was American. And a bugger to clear-up. But ticker-tape remains one of the most enduring positive images of 1978, especially the ticker-tape “receptions” before Argentina’s games.

The tournament opened, as tournaments did back then, with a ghastly goalless draw. West Germany and Poland were shadows of the team which finished first and third respectively in 1974. And it showed. Indeed, apart from Argentina and Scotland, my memories of the Group stages were not specifically of the football at all. I missed West Germany’s 6-0 destruction of Mexico because I was stuck at a race night at our church hall…the compere growling “wretched World Cup” as he gazed out at rows of empty seats. But I saw the most memorable British contribution – one particular Archie Gemmill goal excepted. Brazil were labouring to a 1-1 draw with Sweden in their opening game when Zico headed in a corner four seconds into stoppage time…two seconds after Welsh whistler Clive Thomas blew for full-time.

Thomas, the controversy-magnetic Graham Poll of his day, marched off the pitch, nose in the air, pompous-as-you-like, regularly pointing to his wristwatch as three menacing looking Brazilians stalked him, seemingly ready to explode the moment he turned round. Fortunately, the Brazilians kept their heads to an extent which would be inconceivable today, otherwise the thin, slight Thomas might have attracted more violent attention than that which he clearly sought by making the decision in the first place.
Meanwhile, France played Hungary in a meaningless final group game, after both sides had been eliminated. France were Les Bleus and Hungary wore predominantly red, as was the norm for Eastern European teams, for obvious political reasons. So a clash of strips didn’t seem likely.  However, both teams’ official colours were red, white and blue, France hadn’t a change kit with them – different days – and, according to Fifa regulations, the game couldn’t start until one was found.

So one of the first games I saw on our new colour telly was a stunning advert for… black and white telly, as France were the opposite of resplendent in a local club’s green-and-white striped shirts and blue shorts. Cracking game too. Three-one to France but it could have been anything up to 6-6. France had been drawn with the heavily-favoured hosts (in more ways than one, some argued) and the fancied Italians, who were better than beating Don Revie’s disjointed England on goal difference in qualifying suggested. In fact, France looked favourites against Argentina as the game entered its final quarter with the score 1-1. Then Leopoldo Luque joined in. I’d only heard of two Argentine players before the World Cup. Houseman because he shared that name with Chelsea’s Peter but didn’t look like a relative. And Luque because of a porn-star moustache (not that I knew such things then).

Luque scored in Argentina’s opening victory over Hungary. But his winner against France was a screamer, a deft flick of the ball into the air and crunching 25-yard volley as it fell. Three French defenders simply watched him do it, like Oliver Hardy in Laurel and Hardy films, as protagonists mixed some liquid-y concoction – often paint – to throw over him, or pour into his bowler hat before slamming it onto his head. Hardy could have run, instead of offering sideways glances to the camera. But that wouldn’t have been funny – and believe me, kids, it was funny. And the French defenders could have closed Luque down. But that wouldn’t have been fun for the tournament.

Scotland’s first two performances also brought Laurel and Hardy to mind. Within four days they transmogrified from potential tournament winners to potential losers to Iran. And when MacLeod put his head in his hands seconds before the end, he never looked more like some bloke they’d picked up in Sauchiehall Street. Scotland led in their opening game against Peru, with a fine goal too. And they would have led two-one in the second half. But Don Masson’s penalty was saved by Peru’s soon-to-be-eccentric keeper Ramon Quiroga. And Scotland collapsed. Teofilo Cubillas quickly pinged one in from distance and made it three-one from a free-kick. It was a great strike. But Scotland keeper Alan Rough had clearly put more thought and effort into getting his hair permed than organising a defensive wall.

It got worse when winger Willie Johnston was sent home in disgrace after failing a drugs test. Back in the UK, a cowed Johnston claimed that he’d taken “two pills, about half-an-hour before the game” to combat hay fever symptoms.  Performance-enhancers they were not. In fact, they could have been sedatives and the whole squad taking them, so poorly did Scotland play against Iran. At half-time, they led unconvincingly through a farcical own goal. And although Iran were only one-down at half-time in their previous game against Holland, no-one was making the comparison. Iran equalised midway through the second half and never looked like losing. Scotland weren’t out. But the “Tartan Army” were in full, disapproving voice. Actually, it was more a Tartan platoon with heavy casualties than an army – the Iran game produced the competition’s lowest crowd – although this was understandable given the travelling involved.

Pride was restored as Scotland looked more like Scotland against the Johan Cruyff-less but still-talented Dutch, and not just because they wore their ‘proper’ white shorts after previously donning an all-blue kit. They led three-one after Archie Gemmill scored the most famous goal in Scottish international football history. And the off-mike shouts of “it’s there” from the BBC co-commentator was both a response to the goal and to the realisation that Scotland would qualify if they won four-one – despite…everything. Holland’s Johnny Rep soon crushed those dreams from 35 yards. And it later emerged that Peru would have been awarded victory over Scotland even they had lost, thanks to Johnston’s pills palaver. But, it became a gallant failure. Very England. So Peru won the group. But being runners-up put Holland in a slightly easier-looking second round group, alongside stuttering West Germany, unfancied Austria and Italy, who beat Argentina in their final first round group game.

These finals dispensed with knock-out matches entirely. And the format’s flaws were exposed by the climax of Peru’s group, which also contained Poland and South America’s big-two, Argentina and Brazil. Argentina’s loss to Italy meant they were based in Rosario in the second round, although the smaller stadium sounded just as atmospheric on telly and was the former home ground of Argentina’s emerging star Mario Kempes, who looked like Sid James’s son in Bless this House. After Brazil and Argentina concentrated more on finding opponents’ shins and ankles than the net in their goalless draw the sides were level on points going into their last games. And Argentina played Peru three hours after Brazil beat Poland 3-1, Brazil hitting the post three times in a twenty-second pantomime before their third goal.

So Argentina, handily, knew that a four-goal victory would overhaul Brazil on goal difference. This was not the Peru that danced around Scotland. And they lost to Brazil and Poland without scoring. And they barely had pride to play for after Quiroga entered World Cup folklore with two surges from his goal against Poland – tackling Gregor Lato on the halfway line, (“no wonder they call him El Loco” – ITV commentator Gerry Harrison). But suspicion still surrounds the ease of Argentina’s six-nil win, especially the goals Peru conceded after half-time. Even with my twelve-year-old innocent eyes, something looked wrong. That said, a scruffy, un-Brazilian Brazil – far more 1990 than 1970 – were undeserving of a final place.

In the other group, a new Dutch hero emerged. Arie Haan hammered home Holland’s first goal in an entertaining two-all draw with West Germany, the German’s famous goalkeeper Sepp Maier walking past the ball, thinking it was going wide. And other results gave Holland and Italy’s meeting the feel of a semi-final, as the winner made the final regardless of how the Germans fared against Austria, a match played simultaneously in this “non-Argentine” group. By the way. As it transpired, Austria famously, gloriously, beat the Germans 3-2, with Hans Krankl becoming the world’s most famous non-ski-ing Austrian thanks to his two goals, one a sublime left-foot volley which got BBC commentator Barry Davies just too excited for comfort (“ohhh, Krankl!!”).

Holland/Italy was one-each after Holland’s Ernie Brandts scored at both ends.  Then, Haan secured his place in World Cup history, picking up Ruud Krol’s short free-kick and arrowing a right-foot drive which found the top-corner like a heat-seeking missile. Italian keeper Dino Zoff was at full-stretch, with the ball always just out of reach – how such goals should go in. Zoff was beaten by a rare touch of the “real” Brazil in the third-place play-off when Dirceu curled one round him from near the touchline. Sometimes it is not clear whether such goals are shots or mishit crosses. Dirceu was Brazilian. It was a shot.

The final needed no additional tension. But it was laid on thick anyway. Holland’s Rene Van der Kerkhof took the field with the sort of plastercast on an injured wrist (which needs no further comment, thank you) that you really could “have someone’s eye out” with. Argentina initially refused to take the field. Holland fretted on it. When the game eventually started, Osvaldo Ardiles, Argentina’s diminutive number two (they were numbered alphabetically), waded through the ticker tape to help set up Kempes for the opening goal. But Holland were more than worth Dirk Nanninga’s late leveller. And my heart missed a beat when Robbie Rensenbrink toe-poked the ball against the post from in the last minute.

Two Argentine goals in extra-time ensured the right result, although the third goal involved at least two handballs and a possible offside. I wanted Argentina to win and I thought it should have been disallowed. And I was a year from Thatcher’s election victory and political awareness, so I didn’t check for blood on the trophy as Argentina’s military ruler Jorge Videla handed it to captain Daniel Passarella. 1978’s legacy included ticker-tape messes at Football League grounds not big enough for the intended spectacle. Tottenham signed Ardiles, who we all remembered fondly, and Ricardo Villa, who we didn’t remember at all. And if that didn’t seem right, full-back Alberto Tarantini going to Birmingham City was wrong on every conceivable level. Nevertheless, the tournament whetted my appetite for the World Cups in the 1980s, before Italia ’90 shattered the illusions. And my mates at school thought I was clever. But that didn’t last 12 years.

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