Are Scotland the unluckiest team in world football?

FRANKFURT, Germany — Scotland‘s recurring failure at major tournaments has become so etched into the nation’s psyche that songs have been written about it. They are arguably the unluckiest team in world football, so they lend themselves to ballads of broken dreams.

When the Scots qualified for the 1998 FIFA World Cup — their last appearance at the competition — the Glasgow band Del Amitri penned the team’s official song and called it “Don’t Come Home Too Soon.” It didn’t work. Scotland were knocked out at the group stage to make it, at that point, 10 times out of 10 that they had qualified for a tournament, only to fail to reach the knockout stages. Don’t come home too soon? They were one of the first to pack up and leave. Again.

If you want glorious failure and tales of what might have been, Scotland are the team for you, whether it is World Cups or European Championships. The final chapter has always been the same — heartbreak.

“We’ve had some of the greatest players in Europe, especially through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but have never managed to get out of a group,” ESPN FC pundit and former Scotland midfielder Craig Burley said. “It’s amazing. There has probably been 100 better Scotland teams than this one, but [current manager] Steve Clarke has done a magnificent job as coach, and who knows? This team could be the one that finally gets Scotland out of a group.”

No country in the world comes close to Scotland’s record of qualifying for 11 major tournaments — eight World Cups and three European Championships — and crashing out at the first hurdle each time, but Clarke’s team now has the chance to make history on Sunday in Scotland’s 12th tournament of asking and fourth Euros.

If Scotland beat Hungary in Stuttgart, after a 1-1 draw against Switzerland revived hope following a 5-1 opening game defeat against Germany, they will almost certainly seal qualification to the round of 16 from Group A and finally do what their predecessors were never able to achieve.

“The squad is aware that Scotland have never got out of a group before, so we are hungry to change that,” defender Jack Hendry said. “The squad is determined to make history against Hungary. “There is a lot to look forward to now. Obviously, it is in our hands and it is something to really relish.”

Scotland’s lengthy tale of woe dates back to the 1954 World Cup, but it is about more than simply not being good enough. They have been good enough, at times possessing some of the world’s leading players of the era in Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, but if there is a way to mess something up, Scotland have stumbled upon it.

In three World Cups — 1974, 1978 and 1982 — Scotland were eliminated on goal difference, with their ’74 exit coming after being unbeaten in the group stage in West Germany.

Four years later, Scotland flew to the World Cup in Argentina with manager Ally MacLeod telling the nation that they would return as world champions, but despite a 3-2 win against eventual finalist the Netherlands in their last game, a defeat against Peru and draw against Iran meant the Dutch edged out the Scots, even after finishing level on points.

“The whole country thought we were going to win the World Cup in 1978,” said ESPN FC pundit Steve Nicol, a former Scotland international. “It sounds ridiculous looking back, but 40,000 people gave the squad a send-off at Hampden Park and thousands lined the streets as the bus took the players to the airport. But the manager didn’t really study the opposition. He just said the team would be world-beaters, but we couldn’t even beat Peru or Iran.”

Despite the humiliation of predicting World Cup glory only to be knocked out at the first stage, Scotland manager MacLeod still insisted his team could have gone all the way after going out in a blaze of glory against the Dutch.

“We had such an anti-press that we all got together and said, ‘Stuff the lot of them and get out there and play like the way we can,'” MacLeod said at the time. “If we had played like that in the first two games, there is no doubt that we could have gone on and won the thing, but unfortunately we haven’t. It’s just one of those things.”

Scotland’s narrowest failures came in the 1986 World Cup and at Euro ’96, however. Both times, it came down to one goal.

In 1986, Nicol was in the Scotland team, managed by Sir Alex Ferguson, that needed to beat Uruguay in the final group game to reach the knockout stage. When Uruguay had a player sent off in the second minute, Scotland were seemingly on course for qualification.

But this is Scotland. It all went wrong.

“Their lad being sent off worked against us,” Nicol said. “The referee went the other way after that and there was a foul every 90 seconds and he did nothing. Uruguay kicked the crap out of us. It was like the worst of the 1980s — spitting, skullduggery, you name it — and everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I had a chance to score, probably our only chance. I was 4 yards out, the ball hit the bottom of my sole and the keeper saved it. We couldn’t score, ended up drawing 0-0 and went out.”

Ten years later, Scotland went into the final group game at Euro ’96 needing to beat Switzerland, and England had to defeat the Netherlands by a four-goal margin. An unlikely scenario, but with Scotland beating the Swiss, England raced into a 4-0 lead against the Dutch. Scotland were heading through until Patrick Kluivert scored a late consolation goal for the Netherlands to send the Scots out and prompt England fans to sing songs mocking their British Isles neighbors for missing out again.

“That was the closest we came,” Burley said. “We were in, we were out, in again, and then out. I was on the wing closest to the dugout and I was getting told to bomb forward, stay back, bomb forward. Then Kluivert scored for the Dutch against England and we were out. But what a night that was. Ally McCoist scored a worldie to put us ahead and then missed about seven easy chances. Typical Coisty, really.”

For McCoist, the near miss encapsulated the reality of being involved with the Scotland team.

“We finished with four points and these days that would be automatic qualification,” McCoist told the Press & Journal. “I remember the crowd when England lost that goal, which effectively knocked us out, but England did us a major turn at the time because they were beating the Netherlands 4-0. That five minutes summed up being a Scotland player and fan. I’m praying it won’t be the same at this Euros, and I don’t think it will be.”

The chance to rewrite history now falls to Clarke and his players, and over 50,000 Scotland supporters — the self-styled Tartan Army — are expected to make the trip to Stuttgart on Sunday. But while Scotland are just 90 minutes away from finally reaching the knockout stage of a major tournament, Nicol believes the weight of history will not weigh on the shoulders of the players.

“All that psychobabble stuff of carrying the weight of expectancy is bulls— really,” Nicol said. “When you are getting off the bus at the stadium, the only thing you are thinking about as a player is the game you are about to play and what you need to do. The last thing on your mind is the outside noise about being the first team to qualify from a group. Both Scotland and Hungary are probably thinking the same thing going into the game, that they have a real chance to win and make it into the next stage.

“But as a Scot, I’m preparing myself for glorious failure again.”

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