Scotland’s last 90 minutes at a major tournament was so wounding that it may be fair to question why there is anticipation relating to their return. Little were Craig Brown and his players to know, when exiting the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in Saint-Étienne late into the night on 23 June 1998, that Scotland would be away from finals for 23 years. At the time, perhaps that would have been regarded as a mercy; the inauspicious 3-0 World Cup defeat to Morocco led to scorching criticism of Brown in particular.
Far from wishing the match in question was consigned to football’s version of Room 101, Brown is delighted to revisit it. He remains firmly of the view that depictions of the fixture, even more than two decades on, are unfair. “I’m very happy to talk about that game because I think there is a bit of correction required,” Brown says.
“It could sound like I am complaining but I really have no need to. Every statistic, apart from goals, favours Scotland. We had more possession in both halves – and played most of the second with 10 men – more shots on goal, more shots on target, more corner kicks. Then I read words like ‘humiliation’, which was quite annoying.
“Morocco were the top-ranked African team in that World Cup. I was over in Casablanca watching them before the finals and it was a footballcrazy nation. They are a nation of 36 million people. I used to be an expert on geography because I had to have my excuses for you guys in the media.”
Brown’s laughter is genuine but he clearly remains irked by how the game has been portrayed. “The bottom line is they beat us 3-0,” he says. “I understand that. You don’t win the game with possession or shots at goal. But if there ever was an unfair result, that was it. If anyone speaks of ‘humiliation’ they either weren’t at the game or don’t understand football.”
Having split the Scotland central defence, Salaheddine Bassir fired Morocco ahead after 22 minutes. The second, scored by Abdeljalil Hadda, was far from goalkeeper Jim Leighton’s finest moment. After Craig Burley was dismissed for the recently outlawed tackle from behind, Bassir added a late third via a Colin Hendry deflection. Scotland, who lost 2-1 to Brazil in their opening fixture before holding Norway to a 1-1 draw, finished bottom of Group A.
“We were not in the habit of losing three goals,” Brown says. “In 10 qualifying games we lost three goals. In the 10 qualifying games for Euro 96 we lost three goals. Even at Euro 96, with the elite, we lost only two goals.”
Leighton, who won 91 caps, played twice more for his country. Gordon Durie, capped 43 times, did not feature for Scotland again. Likewise, Tosh McKinlay. Colin Calderwood, who missed the Morocco match through injury, Tom Boyd and John Collins were in the closing stages of their national service.
David Weir was at the opposite end of the spectrum. He won the seventh of 69 caps against Morocco, reward for setting up Burley’s equaliser against Norway. Brown had consistently told his players that a pass threaded between the left centre-half – who at that point were still generally right-footed – and the left-back was the toughest to defend. Weir followed the plan and Scotland kept qualification hopes alive.
“It was not a 3-0 game,” says Weir. “But the way football works, it doesn’t really matter about the game when you lose 3-0. The scoreline matters.
“Craig got some incredible criticism at that time considering what he achieved, as has been borne out by the years since. We had genuine warmth towards him so we were disappointed for him as much as anything else. He was way ahead of his time in terms of his preparation, how he managed people and the psychology of dealing with the opposition. You were never intimidated by anyone, as results around that time showed.”
So what went so wrong? Weir jokes that the rare inclusion of himself and Jackie McNamara was possibly no coincidence. “Morocco thought they had qualified and only didn’t because Norway beat Brazil,” says the former centre-back. “That gives you an idea of how competitive they were. Qualifying from Africa was and is not easy. As always with Scotland, we think we are the founders of football and deserve to win. The players didn’t underestimate them but the general fanbase saw that as a game we should be taking care of.”
Brown recalls the dressing room after the game. “It was despondent. The boys were enjoying the tournament and were genuinely anxious to stay on.” Weir, keen to escape negative headlines at home, headed on an immediate holiday to the US. Brown, who left his post in 2001, would “never have believed” so long would pass until Scotland’s next finals berth. “The celebrations in Serbia when they qualified this time were terrific, I loved them,” he says. “That celebration was born out of missing the excitement for all those years. I don’t recall us celebrating like that because we were used to qualifying. It was more a disgrace if you didn’t qualify in my time than a great success if you did.”
Understandably, Brown is effusive in praise of Steve Clarke’s tenure. “He has done a marvellous job. This is a guy who took West Brom to their highest Premier League finish. He took Reading to an FA Cup semi-final. Look what has happened to [recently relegated] Kilmarnock since he left. He has been outstanding for Scotland because international football is a different level altogether.
“England in the group makes it difficult right away. The Czech Republic and Croatia are no pushovers but we have had decent results against all three of them. They are to be respected, not feared.”
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